Report on Oswego County DSS turns up known issues with staffing, large caseloads

February 02, 2023

Originally published in CNY Central on February 02, 2023.

The Bonadio Group points to short staffing, retention and overflowing caseloads in their newly-released report on the Oswego County Department of Social Services. Those, plus other factors, they say, are making it difficult to carry out what's required to investigate and monitor cases of abuse properly.

Oswego County Legislature Chairman Jim Weatherup says the information in the report is not surprising. " We need the real information, not perceived or old information. So, we are going to act on what we have found in this Bonadio report and our own ongoing work processes," said Weatherup.

Human Services Department data shows CPS is funded for 77 full-time positions, but there are currently only 55 caseworkers. 31 of them left in 2022 alone, and although the department hired 18 more last year, there's still 27 open positions. The report suggests 15 cases per worker is manageable, but more than half in Oswego County are dealing with 16 to 25 at a time.

One recommendation coming out of this report, is to evaluate just how much caseworkers are getting paid to do what's considered a very difficult job. Chairman Weatherup says "the Legislature had voted at the end of last year to increase the pay for the caseworkers, and that was identified in the report. So now we're only second to Onondaga County in our area." As of January 1st, the starting salary for caseworkers is now $49,031. 

Legislature Minority Leader Frank Castiglia voted against spending the money to do the study. He says the report "said the same thing that they've been saying all along. We've been telling them that all along. They're overworked, underpaid, and they're understaffed." Legislator Castiglia points to similar conclusions drawn from a 2009 report by Cornell University after the death of 11-year-old Erin Maxwell, turning up major concerns in how DSS operates. "It's an action plan. An action plan should be coming from the commissioner, not from an outside agency," explained Castiglia, who thinks there should be changes in leadership at the department. 

There are some areas of strength highlighted in the new report: 24-hour safety checks were completed in a timely manner in all cases, and in 97% of cases, supervisors offered feedback to caseworkers. That’s something commissioner Stacy Alvord says is critical in a release about the report. With those positive stats, there’s still the reality that 17-year-old Jordan Brooks slipped through the cracks, dying despite warnings. Chairman Weatherup says the Legislature is still committed to doing their own investigation into what happened, "but we need to let the legal process play out," referring to Brooks' mom and step-dad charged in the case.

Chairman Weatherup says this report is providing a starting point to protect kids in Oswego County, including discussions about caseworker safety enhancements and bringing in more help for the commissioner if necessary. 

Meantime at the state-level, Senator John Mannion is co-sponsoring two bills with protecting children in mind. One bill being proposed in the Children and Families Committee aims to require CPS caseworkers to go through disability sensitivity and cultural competency training. The other bill is being proposed in the Rules Committee, focusing on requiring standards for caseloads, and would require the state to pay for what's necessary to comply with the standards.