By MIKE LEE
SSEU Local 371 is pushing back on the scapegoating of Child Protective Services workers surrounding the tragic case of a 6-year-old boy whose death at home was ruled a homicide.
Union leaders and social services workers spoke out on behalf of the Child Protective Services workers at a City Council hearing at City Hall on Oct. 31.
The testimony before the council’s Committee on General Welfare followed an often contentious grilling of city Administration for Children’s Services officials by committee members, including Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Public Advocate Letitia James.
The hearings focused on accountability and reforms in the aftermath of the death of Zymere Perkins. Perkins, 6 years old, was found dead in his home in September. The New York City Medical Examiner’s office ruled his death resulted from child abuse.
Several CPS workers, supervisors and other ACS employees are currently suspended or reassigned pending the Manhattan DA’s investigation.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s investigation continues. But as a result of an ongoing ACS investigation, eight of the 13 workers were reinstated, th0ugh in lower-level positions. This group included four managers and two Borough Commissioners. Five CPS workers, however, remain on administrative duty.
Union lays out proposals, defends workers
Though all parties are under a gag order, the local press and politicians have used the case as an excuse to attack ACS workers, who daily work long hours under constant threat and at times have been victims themselves of assaults by clients.
At the hearing, state Sen. Diane Savino, who began her public service career as a Caseworker for the agency when it was known as the Child Welfare Administration, laid out a proposal of steps aimed at preventing further tragedies as in the Perkins case.
Among the proposals, Savino called on the council to consider restoring the Family Services Unit, which would help provide families services for families whose cases were unfounded to receive vital support from the agency.
She also proposed creating ACS liaisons for every New York City school to work with teachers and principals in monitoring possible cases of neglect. In addition, she called upon schools to report absences to ACS in order for the agency to be better aware of a potential at-risk children.
“CPS workers should be able to act quickly to protect the child,” Savino said.
President Anthony Wells of Social Service Employees Union Local 371, the local that represents ACS Child Protective Specialists and Supervisors, strongly defended the workers.
“Our members have one of the most difficult and challenging jobs in the city–protecting children and families,” Wells told the committee. “They often work in the most adverse conditions, going to homes and locations not knowing what they will face on the other side of the door.”
Wells also excoriated the press coverage around the Perkins case.
“The media has vilified the CPS worker associated with this case, rushing to judgment before the facts are known,” Wells said. “This type of coverage makes it difficult for our workers. It shows our workers that no matter how good they are in protecting children, and despite their successful cases, when one child dies, they can be fired and their reputations destroyed without any factual investigation.”
Wells also cited the need for ACS to implement reforms to reduce workloads and improve the working environments, adding that ACS workers must be supported by management and the city.
CPS Trisha Van de Cruize told the committee her experiences working for the city.
“A CPS worker does not know how their day will end,” Van de Cruize said. “What we do know is our job is nonstop and challenging. But in the end, we get the satisfaction of knowing we played a part in a child’s life while ensuring the safety and unity of the family.”
“You feel overwhelmed, overworked, but then you remember what all your efforts were for,” Van de Cruize said. “Today, you tried your best to make a family stronger, to ensure the safety of another child, and to make sure a child is not hungry or in danger. You love being able to assist the family.”
DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido also spoke before the committee. “We are not to forget what you heard today from these workers,” Garrido said. “The difficulties of doing this job and the challenges regarding their caseloads must be addressed. They get up every day to do what they do—and we should never forget that.”