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State lawmakers propose CPS reforms following child deaths

Chris Caya/WBFO News

The deaths of two children in Buffalo has led to a package of reforms that will be proposed in Albany Monday at the start of the legislative session. Senator Timothy Kennedy and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes say the bills they're sponsoring will make Child Protective Services in Erie County and across the state more responsive, effective and accountable.

The reforms include new education and training requirements for CPS workers and supervisors. Peoples-Stokes says under one of the changes, children being interviewed will no longer have to "sit in fear."   

"Current law requires that Child Protective Services must interview the child in front of the parent or guardian, which, sad to say, is often the accused perpetrator," said Peoples-Stokes. "There's no good reason why the law should require that."

Kennedy says another change involves reclassifying excessive corporal punishment as abuse, rather than neglect.

"In New York State, the legal definition is antiquated. Thirty-three other states in the nation have a law that puts excessive corporal punishment under a legal definition as abuse. It's time for New York State to update these antiquated laws," Kennedy said.

The reforms were prompted by the recent murders of five-year-old Eain Brooks and 10-year-old Abdifatah Mohamud, which shed light on serious gaps and inadequacies in the CPS system.   

Mohamud was murdered by his stepfather, Ali-Mohamed Mohamud in 2011. Matthew Kuzdal, the boyfriend of Eain Brooks' mother, is accused of fatally beating the boy in 2013. CPS had been called in both cases, but case workers never took action against the two men.

The reforms include:

  • Ensuring Child Protective Services workers are properly trained for their unique and challenging work.
    • This legislation enacts new qualification requirements for CPS workers and supervisors.
    • CPS caseworkers would be required to have a bachelor’s degree in social work, psychology, counseling, addiction or a related field, or they could have relevant experience in law enforcement, counseling or working with individuals with disabilities.
    • CPS supervisors would be required to have a master’s degree in social work, psychology, counseling, addiction or related field, or ten years of relevant work experience in the human services field.
  • New accountability by strengthening involvement of mandated reporters in CPS investigations.
    • The county Child Protective Services agency will be required to provide information, within 30 days, after receipt of a report of suspected abuse or neglect to the mandated reporter who called in the suspected mistreatment.
    • Mandated reporters will be given access to the outcomes of investigations into the safety of children to determine if reports were unfounded, if reports resulted in services being provided to a child, or if reports resulted in a child being removed from an unsafe environment.
    • This will ensure families and mandated reporters have necessary information to ensure reports of abuse are taken seriously. Families who stay in close contact with mandated reporters, such as teachers and physicians, will be able to monitor and be assured that necessary actions are being taken to investigate a case.
  • Reforming excessive corporal punishment statutes. Ensuring stronger, deeper investigations when violent, extreme and senseless corporal punishment is reported.
    • This legislation reclassifies excessive corporal punishment as abuse, rather than neglect, and thus, subjects more CPS cases to further scrutiny to ensure the safety of children involved.
    • Abuse cases receive a higher level of investigation, stricter scrutiny and carry more severe penalties than neglect cases. This legislation will ensure cases of excessively violent corporal punishment, like that suffered by Abdifatah Muhamud, are investigated to a fuller, more thorough and more aggressive degree.
    • Officials in the fields of child advocacy, child protection, parents’ rights and law enforcement have long been clamoring for a change to this antiquated legal definition. Currently, 33 other states already classify excessive corporal punishment as abuse.
  • Reforming protocols for the interviewing of children in suspected abuse cases to ensure stronger, more accurate and more thorough investigations.
    • This legislation amends the social services law to state that children, in CPS investigations, may not be interviewed in the presence of another individual who has been named in the report of suspected abuse or neglect.
    • This will allow CPS workers to conduct a more thorough and meaningful interview.
    • Children interviewed in front of a potential abuser may be coached to say something, or may be fearful of speaking the truth. In this unfortunate circumstance, the abuser may be shielded and the CPS worker may be blocked from acting to protect the child.
  • Sharpening the statewide child abuse hotline to track repeat reports of abuse.
    • This bill requires the Office of Children and Family Services, which oversees the statewide hotline, to monitor for repeated reports of abuse to facilitate a more appropriate response from local counties to families or children frequently reported to the hotline. 
    • Under this legislation, OCFS will be required to consider the prior history of reports and allegations of child abuse or maltreatment when making a determination of whether a new allegation could reasonably constitute a report of child abuse.
    • This will ensure a report of child abuse is not viewed as an isolated incident when a call is made to the central register, if the child or suspected abuser involved has previously been reported to the register.
  • Improving investigations and ensuring accountability by requiring photographic evidence be gathered during caseworker visits.
    • This legislation changes the social services law to require that every caseworker or CPS worker who has contact with a child as part of an investigation, a supervision/monitoring program or a treatment plan document each visit with a photograph of the child.
    • The photographic evidence will be confidential and maintained in confidential case files to be periodically reviewed by supervisors on the case.
    • This will prevent workers from falsifying records, and it will allow caseworkers to more seamlessly consult with supervisors regarding the evidence uncovered that will determine the case’s conclusion.
    • In the case of Eain Brooks, photographic evidence may have helped CPS determine that the likely cause of Eain’s injuries did not match the explanations the alleged abuser gave to caseworkers.