October 26, 2014

Elyria
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Children Services workers protest layoffs

ELYRIA — Complaints from employees at Lorain County Children Services about a recent round of layoffs at the agency fell on deaf ears.

Just five members of the agency’s board attended Wednesday night’s monthly meeting. Six are needed for quorum and the meeting was called off.

Union president Angie Martinez and several employees dressed in union T-shirts alleged that the board purposely missed the meeting, an allegation spokeswoman Patti-Jo Burtnett called “absolutely not true.”

Burtnett said the board has had issues in the past reaching quorum, and several members had scheduling conflicts with their employers, were sick or out of town.

The meeting was supposed to address employees’ concerns about agency layoffs.

On Friday, 14 employees, including 10 case aides, two file clerks, a case work supervisor and a secretary, were notified that they would be laid off because of budget cuts made last year by the board. Martinez, who chairs Local 2192, was one of the case aides cut, just two years before her planned retirement.

“(The employees) wanted to know if the board knew that there were grievances on the pipeline and what they were going to do about it,” Martinez said.

According to staff members, three grievances were signed by 33 employees at the agency, representing the largest grievance in the agency’s history. Still, they said agency director Dr. Gary Crow has done little to address the grievances, which state that Children Services employees are overworked after the agency implemented a single worker model, combining its intake and protective services unit.

The structure allows one caseworker to work continuously with a family instead of splitting the work between an intake worker, who receives the initial report, and the protective worker, who follows through after the report is substantiated.
Other agencies have called the approach “innovative,” but employees say it is unrealistic for an agency its size, and it puts more of a strain on workers, especially after the layoffs of several case aides.

Cutting the case aides will mean a reduction or elimination of services such as transporting children to and from doctor appointments and supervised visits, and working with families during in-home visits, according to the agency.

Employees, who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation, said they believed that Martinez’s layoff may be related to the grievance she filed. Martinez filed another grievance against the agency in 2005, according to documents provided by a caseworker who no longer works at the agency.

The grievance alleges that management had created an “environment of fear,” and that workers had “become paralyzed over making critical decisions due to the fear that those decisions might result in punishment by this agency.”

Others who are losing their jobs have 23 to 28 years of experience, Martinez has said, while agency turnover is a problem.

“Constantly retraining people … I’m sure, is the cause of this whole situation right here,” one worker said.

Burtnett has previously denied an issue with agency turnover and has said caseloads are not unmanageable, but all of the workers spoke about being overworked Wednesday.

One caseworker said she often works 12-hour days. Another talked about out-of-state “check ups,” in which the agency requires caseworkers to visit former clients who have been moved out of state, something they say is unique to the agency.

Instead of letting the agency in the state follow up with the family, caseworkers are traveling as far as Alaska, at least once a month, to visit with the families, something workers call costly and unnecessary.

Burtnett said it has been the practice to continue visiting children placed into new homes with relatives out of state for approximately 15 years.

“These are our kids, and we’re not going to just place them into the home and not see how they’re doing,” she said.

Once the children are permanently placed, Burtnett said visits from the agency stop.

Caseworkers also were critical about the agency’s handling of the Erica Perez case.

On July 5, Perez was arrested at her home after police found her intoxicated, yelling at her neighbors. Police found Perez’s seven children — one was not in the home — dirty and neglected in the home with little food and only a single mattress to sleep on.

After The Chronicle-Telegram learned that the agency had been involved with Perez since 2001 and handled several separate investigations with the family, the agency disciplined a casework supervisor. The caseworker on the case, Steven Silva, resigned.

Caseworkers said the blame shouldn’t have been placed on Silva, who was forced to follow court orders and various other hurdles that prevented the agency from taking Perez’s children. They claimed that the agency did not stick up for the caseworkers and placed blame where it shouldn’t have been directed, rather than looking at management and procedures within the agency.

Burtnett said employees will have the opportunity to voice concerns during the board’s next meeting Feb. 13. The layoffs are expected to take effect on or after Feb. 15.

Workers said they will attend the next meeting with the hope that the board will consider different cuts, including re-examining several of the agency’s procedures.

“None of us care about the money,” said one woman.

The caseworkers said they love their jobs, they just want more support from the agency and maybe a little free time.
“Not only do we give up a lot, but we give up time with our kids. We give up time with our husbands,” said a worker. “We give up time to do what’s important to us, because we want to take care of our county’s kids.”

At a glance

  • WHAT HAPPENED: Workers gathered to protest 14 upcoming layoffs at Lorain County Children Services, but the meeting was canceled because the agency board didn’t have a quorum.
  • WHAT’S NEXT: The board is scheduled to meet again Feb. 13. The layoffs are scheduled to take effect Feb. 15.

Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or cmiller@chroniclet.com.