A few weeks ago, the world stood in shock when three small children were drowned by their emotionally disturbed and troubled mother. What makes the death of these children even more troubling is that the mother had a file bursting with complaints of neglect and abuse toward her children. According to public records, the mother had nine CPS cases and seven criminal arrests, but allegedly nothing was ever quite serious enough for her children to be removed from her care.
Since this tragic story broke, the Department of Social Services in both Nassau and Suffolk Counties has been challenged to look at how they deal with cases of neglect and abuse as they relate to small children. Unfortunately, the media has been quick to blame administrative personnel for incompetence, especially in this specific case and how it was handled.
It's easy to point the finger and blame others for this system of care that is antiquated, understaffed and poorly financed. Remember, the poor are the voiceless, with no fixed address. No one really represents them. Some politicians around election time will mouth pious platitudes around the plight of the poor. Unfortunately, although politically presented, there is no substance or real plan to what they're saying.
The poor are the invisible faces among us that struggle to navigate a landscape that is oftentimes cold and heartless. The average poor person does not want to be on social services, but would rather be self-reliant, self-sufficient and independent. Unfortunately, we live in a county that does not empower self-reliance and self-sufficiency but rather continuously sets the poor up for failure.
Millions of dollars are allocated to serve the basic needs of the poor in our midst. On paper there is a network of shelters that provide emergency services for the poor and needy. Those services are incomplete and shortsighted. Rarely do they provide the poor with the tools they need to survive.
The average poor person is trying to manage a safe place to live, and the means to protect and care for a family. Our system of social services provides a place to stay for a limited time with no real concern for the person and his or her future.
Therefore the places where most of the poor are placed are at best inadequate and destructive. Most people would like to believe that the system cares for the poor and is concerned about their future.
So many outreach programs for the poor do not have the staff that they need to genuinely meet the comprehensive needs of those entrusted to their care. Oftentimes, the poor need assistance in navigating the complicated landscape of survival.
To receive social services, they are given a hit list of things they must do in a very brief period of time. Usually they must obtain documentation that is very difficult to come by. They're given a limited time line to gather this documentation. Failure to comply usually results in a sanction from services.
We live in a county where public transportation on a good day is horrible. Trying to get from Patchogue to Hauppauge to Riverhead in a day is more than an adventure. Oftentimes, the paper work that needs to be filled out to obtain documentation and/or receive services is overwhelming. People in need require some very basic assistance in filling out forms, and understanding the process in order to meet the bureaucratic guidelines imposed.
Most programs do not have the staff to provide that kind of assistance for the poor and the needy. Thus, it becomes a vicious cycle of failure. The system provides minimal human services, with no plan to break the cycle of dependency.
A person is homeless. He or she is placed in an emergency shelter for a night. They are given a meal and a safe place to stay for the night. However, their needs are far greater than just a bed, a shower and a hot meal. What do they do the next day?
Most people go to the local Social Services Center to apply for emergency housing in a community that has little or no housing resources for the poor and the needy. They are placed in resources that are disgracefully maintained and poorly managed. Many of the single occupancy resources are so scandalous and so poorly managed that the poor are afraid to stay there. If they leave, they are sanctioned and left without any resources. Too often, when and if they complain, their complaints fall on deaf ears.
Those who provide emergency housing for the poor and the needy are often not held accountable for the services they offer. The Department of Social Services pays an agreed-upon amount for the use of these resources.
Oftentimes what they are contracted for is not provided. For example, a poor person in need of emergency housing is assigned a room and board situation in a certain locality. The person is told that he or she is being placed in a room and board situation where he or she will have access to a clean bathroom that works and be given a bed with clean sheets, a blanket and a towel. The person is also assured that he or she will be safe.
In good faith, the person goes to his or her assigned resource only to arrive and find that there are no clean sheets, the bathroom is not clean and does not function properly, and more troubling, there is no door on the shared room. The person goes to sleep in the middle of the night and the few possessions he or she has are stolen.
The poor person has no recourse. If he or she complains, they have no voice. There is no formal mechanism to hear the complaints and more importantly to act upon them. In the past, when advocates have asked why no action, the system's response has always been "we don't have the personnel to address those concerns."
The issue of personnel is really the heart of the matter. It's easy to blame middle-management for the tragic circumstances involving the death of three small children by a mentally ill and abusive mother, who was already in the social services pipeline because of complaints of neglect and abuse. However, the real issue is that the system does not have the appropriate staff to handle the growing number of troubling cases before them.
According to a recent article published in Newsday, more than 10% of the jobs necessary to meet the demands of servicing the poor and the complaints that the Department of Social Services receives are unfilled. If that is true, how are we ever going to responsibly respond to the needs of the poor and empower them to be self-reliant, self-sufficient and independent? How do we expect to respond to the growing number of neglect and abuse cases that are being identified?
In an effort to be fiscally responsible, we are destroying the infrastructure necessary to deliver adequate and comprehensive human services. We are also burning out the fine men and women who quietly go to work every day trying to make a difference. If we took a closer look at their caseloads and what they are expected to do with limited resources in a given day, we would be overwhelmed!
The Department of Social Services has to stop band-aiding their approach to human services and fill the empty positions, both administratively and in the field. Based on need and their own statistical facts, we need to increase social service personnel so that they can do their job effectively, efficiently and competently.
Hopefully, the recent deaths of three innocent children who were victimized by our system of social welfare will be a wake-up call for both Nassau and Suffolk Counties and their legislatures to look more closely at the delivery human services, as it directly relates to the poor and disadvantaged among us. Hopefully, they will make the critical changes necessary to protect all human life, including those with no fixed address and no social voice.