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Emergency Custody Decisions: Part One

Friday, February 2, 2001 at 8:41 AM

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Cuyahoga County has custody of some 6,000 children, who -- for a variety of reasons -- would not be safe at home, and every day social workers with the Department of Children and Family Services are asked to investigate dozens more troubled families, and make critical custody decisions. Sometimes the decision-making process breaks down. Last spring, a child whose family was under investigation by DCFS, died, the victim of child abuse. While the court system has already tried and convicted the girl's mother for the crime, the decisions made in the course of the case continue to haunt the agency. 90.3's April Baer has the first of two reports on how the county handles emergency custody.

April Baer- It’s been nine months since the case of a lively, active 4-year-old named Sidney Sawyer first came to the attention of the Department of Children and Family Services, and eight months since she was beaten to death in her mother’s Hough apartment. Still, Sidney’s case is far from over. The county supervisor responsible for the case, 9-year agency veteran Tallis George Munro, was fired in July. Agency director Bill Denihan.

Bill Denihan- We believe that Mister Munro did not follow the tools he had in front of him and made a conscious decision not to follow the tools.

AB- The tools Denihan is talking about are series of investigative procedures county staff use to decide when if children should be taken under emergency custody. The decision is made dozens of times daily by county workers, like Denise Dembowski.

Denise Dembowski- You get the real deal though, walking all the way out here.

AB- Even on icy, snowy days like today, Dembowski is trudging four blocks to her parking space, heading out on her rounds. She’s young, like most case workers. She came to the agency justa fter graduating from college. When a complaint about child abuse or neglect is called in, it’s workers like her who find out what’s going on, and make initial assessments. She’s matter of fact about the tense family situations and tough neighborhoods she moves through.

DD- I never take anything except like the bare essentials, what I need.

AB- The average social worker has about seven to eight months experience. That’s part of the reason the agency requires its caseworkers and their supervisors to use a risk assessment tool. It’s a kind of test that helps staff quickly assess what’s going on. Jim McCafferty is the agency’s deputy director.

Jim McCafferty- A lot of them, friends of mine, say, “Hell, if I didn’t have your risk assessment and I saw a child with bruises that have been beaten, I’m gonna take custody of the child”. Well yeah, but when you get out there and the parent starts to tell you their version of the story and this is what happened, and it was an accident, and I don’t know how it occurred. I was in the other room and I went in and there was a mark. I left my child with a babysitter, and the child came back this way.

AB- McCafferty says the risk assessment system the county uses gives workers questions to ask to get 18,000 complaints per year moving quickly and efficiently. The structured-decision-making tool, or SDM, as it’s called, has its roots in actuarial science. It’s not unlike the questionnaires used by insurance agents trying to assess financial risk. Driving out on her cases, Denise Dembowski says the SDM’s questions about family behaviors, history, drug or alcohol problems, domestic abuse, are fairly straightforward and easy to follow.

DD- I mean, I go out on cases—I don’t actually pull the safety assessment out. I kind of know what questions to ask for, you look at the home, make sure that it’s safe, so this household we’ll see how it looks make sure the four year old isn’t going to be getting hurt.

AB- After the initial home visit, a safety assessment form is completed and a score tallied. If the score indicates the child is not safe, the worker immediately takes action (and) gets emergency custody. If the score indicates no red flags, or if some means can be found to keep the child safe, like temporary placement with a grandparent, SDM guides the worker to avoid splitting the family.

Former County supervisor Tallis George Munro, lost his job last year over the Sidney Sawyer case. He says it was because the SDM score he and his subordinate calculated for Sidney Sawyer did not indicate the child was in immediate danger. Twenty nine days later, the child was pronounced dead, killed by blows to the abdomen that ruptured her small intestine. Munro says, in the case of Sidney Sawyer, SDM failed him.

Tallis George Munro- There are perhaps ten to fifteen percent of referrals that come into the agency, where this tool will not be able to assess risk to children.

AB- Munro wants his job back, and he says he doesn’t deserve further liability for Sidney’s death. More on his side of the story in part 2.

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