Social work: it's a job that seemingly never ends and features difficulties that only a few can comprehend.
That’s how top leaders at the Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family services described everyday life for agency employees during a wide-ranging interview with News 5 Thursday afternoon. The interview comes as the agency reviews how it handled the case involving 4-year-old Aniya Day-Garrett, whose mother had been under CFS scrutiny at least three times before allegedly murdering her daughter.
CFS said officials could not discuss specific cases, citing department policy and state privacy laws. Thursday’s interview featured director Cynthia Weiskittel, deputy directors Tamara Chapman-Wagner and Jacqueline McCray and extended services administrator Christopher Cabot. The four agreed to discuss the agency’s procedures, and shed light on how a case begins and ends.
“I think the greatest misconception the public has is that we can prevent every bad thing from happening to children. We alone can’t do that,” Weiskittel said. “We respond to the calls that we get. We do a good job of getting out and making sure kids are safe, but at the end of the day we can’t be the only people in town protecting children. It’s not doable.”
More than 50,000 calls were placed into CFS’ emergency hotline in 2017, which is manned 24/7. A total of 41 social workers help operate the hotline and are managed by ten supervisors and one senior manager.
Of the 50,000 calls placed - about one every ten minutes - 14,000 turned into a referral for investigation. The social workers send the referrals to a supervisor, who determines whether it should be classified as an emergency or non-emergency.
“An emergency basically means that a child is at imminent risk,” Chapman-Wagner said. “The person who is providing harm to that child has access to that child, and the child is in danger at the moment.”
If a referral is classified as an emergency, a social worker or child protection specialist is required to have a face-to-face meeting with the parties involved in the allegation within one hour. If a referral is deemed to be a non-emergency, a social worker has to hold the face-to-face meeting within 24 hours.
Once an investigation begins, every party involved is interviewed, if possible. Numerous public records searches are conducted, as well as a review of prior CFS contact with the family, if applicable. As the investigation progresses, social workers have to determine, and then articulate to the court, whether cause exists to remove the child from the home.
The imminent risk standard also applies to determining whether cause exists. However, CFS social workers can also seek to determine whether or not an ongoing risk of child abuse or neglect exists. The court makes the final determination about removing the child from the home.
There are a total of 488 social workers at CFS; 143 of which are assigned to investigations. The other social workers are assigned to ongoing cases or cases that involve long term services.
Weiskittel said there are checks and balances throughout the investigatory process.
“We have staff at different levels looking at random cases, reading them, seeing if they agree with the decision that was made,” Weiskittel said. “If not, we come together and talk about that. There might be some additional training offered. Every single part of the agency is involved in the work that we do.”
The choruses for greater accountability within CFS have grown louder since the tragic death of Aniya Day-Garrett. On March 11th, Euclid police found her emaciated, lifeless body in her mother’s apartment. Her mother, Sierra Day, and her mother’s boyfriend, Deonte Lewis, have both been charged with aggravated murder. Both face the possibility of the death penalty.
According to the medical examiner’s office, Aniya died of blunt force trauma to the head. She was also burned and badly emaciated. The little girl’s death punctuated years of alleged abuse.
According to a Euclid police incident report, administrators at Aniya’s daycare documented injuries on Aniya’s body on at least 14 occasions between the fall of 2015 to the spring of 2017. The injuries included deep bruises, cuts, abrasions and facial injuries. On numerous occasions, Aniya told daycare administrators that her mother hurt her.
In May 2017, a daycare administrator noted Aniya was bleeding from her ear. The daycare administrator called 911, and Aniya was taken to the hospital. According to the report, Day suggested to authorities that the staff at the daycare facility hit her daughter.
“[Day] told [the officer] Aniya has told her that they hit her, but [Day] did not take it seriously because Aniya lies,” the report states.
A CFS spokeswoman previously told News 5 that the agency had three prior cases involving Aniya, her mother and allegations of abuse. However, none of those cases resulted in enough cause to have Aniya removed from the home, the spokeswoman said.
“What I will tell you is that we don’t kill children,” Weiskittel said. “I always say that to my staff all the time. We don’t kill children. Our job is to protect children, and we do the very best that we can.”
Any time a child with a history at CFS dies or suffers a near-death incident, CFS conducts a thorough internal investigation into the agency’s handling of the case, Weiskittel said.
“We will take the case from beginning to end. We will review the entire involvement of the agency,” Weiskittel said. “We will look at whether it met policy and procedure. Were the right questions asked? Did we find what we should have found? Were there any situations where we might have asked different questions or made different decisions? We will take those reviews to staff and talk to them about it. We will make changes based on what we find in those.”
With the burgeoning opioid and drug epidemics, those working in social services are more strapped for resources than ever. According to CFS data, the average case load for a social worker operating in the agency’s investigative unit is 15. Those working in the extended services unit have a case load of 13.
“We would like to drive it down a little further to be perfectly honest,” Weiskittel said. “We think investigations at 11 or 12 would be pretty good. For the ongoing services, we would like to drop it to 10 or under.”
As for what it would take to get to that point, Weiskittel said the answer is simple.
“More staff,” she said.
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