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County blocks $2.6 million state grant

Monroe County recently turned down a $2.6 million grant from the state that would have helped poor parents accused of neglect keep their children. The NYS Office of Indigent Legal Services would have awarded Monroe County's Public Defender’s office the money but the County blocked the grant, saying they don’t want to protect parents’ interests at the expense of the child’s well-being.

“Monroe County declined to participate in this temporary, experimental, state-run program out of concern that it could have unintended consequences on the County’s efforts to keep children and families safe,” wrote county spokesman Jesse Sleezer. “The program itself, although well-intentioned, would have injected lawyers into cases of abuse and neglect much earlier, potentially intimidating child victims and limiting access by CPS workers who would otherwise assess and monitor the child's safety. The attorneys involved in this pilot program would serve only one client – the parent accused of abuse – and would not have any professional responsibility to serve the best interests of the abused child.”

An advocacy group, The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform’s executive director Richard Wexler criticized the county’s move. He says the grant gives impoverished parents the same legal access a wealthier or middle class parent would have if accused of neglect and facing loss of custody.

He says this grant would also keep families intact, because children are less likely to be moved out of the home unnecessarily.

"There have been studies done of thousands and thousands of such cases, typical cases seen by workers which show that the children left in their homes fare better later in life than even comparably maltreated children placed in foster care. Therefore it is vital, not for the parents but for the children that needless foster care be avoided," Wexler said.

“There are cases where the stereotypes are true, in other words," he continued. "When we think of child abuse, generally what comes to mind is a sadist or a brute. Someone who tortures their children. Those cases are very rare but they do exist and there is no excuse for it. Child protective services has every reason in such cases to take away the child.”

After the high-profile death of three-year-old Brook Stagles, Monroe County officials wanted to take more steps to deal with abuse and strengthened Child Protective Services. Authorities say Stagles was beaten to death in late 2016 by her father's girlfriend. Dozens of new caseworkers were added and pay was adjusted to be fairer and more competitive.

“Fortunately, Monroe County is already making unprecedented investments to better protect children this year through County Executive Dinolfo's forward-thinking CPS 8 Point Plan, which includes funding to put 30 new CPS Caseworkers in the field,” Sleezer wrote in the same statement.

But Wexler warns against potential “Foster Care Panic” or the fear that occurs after a high-profile and tragic death. He says this panic can have a backlash for children: caseworkers become so worried their cases will result in death, they overreact.

Wexler praised these moves but said overall, it’s not enough to remove the child to protect them.

“Here’s the problem: if the only thing you do is add a bunch more caseworkers and things of that sort and you don’t fundamentally change your approach, it doesn’t work. All you get is the same lousy system, only bigger.”

Wexler says caseworkers would also benefit from the grant and better legal representation for poor parents. Fewer removed children translates into a smaller workload. With that, they are better able to investigate more severe cases and work on helping those children. Wexler accused the county of politicizing the money by framing the grant as protection for abusers.

He argues the grant evens the playing field of parents with different socioeconomic backgrounds and can pave the way for more resourceful methods, like drug and housing resources to rehabilitate a family instead of just taking the children away.

However, when lawyers get involved continues to be a major sticking point for the county.

"Monroe County requested that the program should initiate only after the filing of a court petition, not before, to minimize any unnecessary interference with the work of our Child Protective Services unit. Unfortunately, ILS (Indigent Legal Services), rejected that amendment and declined to work towards a solution," Sleezer said. 

This program is currently in New York City, Wexler says and it's popular around the nation. However, county officials say it has to work for Monroe County before they will accept the grant.

"They're not locked into," says Wexler. "They can always try and if it doesn't work, stop the program."