Investigating Social Services

The Maxwell family with their lawyer

Before Erin Maxwell died August 30th, before State Police discovered she was often locked in her room without food in a home full of animals with piles of garbage and feces, before her stepbrother was charged with her murder and before her father and stepmother were accused of endangering the welfare of a child, Oswego County child protective workers were called to the Palermo home three times to investigate complaints that Erin was in potential danger. Yet according to Oswego County Social Services Cvommissioner Fran Lanigan, "that was not an immediate threat to the child as far as removal of the child."

Lanigan is under fire. Many want Lanigan fired over her department's handling of those three complaints. On July 25th 2003, a child protective caseworker investigated a complaint that Erin was beaten with a belt, locked in her room without food in a "filthy house", and determined she was "safe and unharmed.

On November 19th 2004, a complaint that her clothes "wreaks of cat urine" was "unfounded.

On March 27th 2006 a caseworker investigated a complaint that Erin lived in a "deplorable condition...eats out of garbage pails and hoards food." the caseworker determined she was "not being impacted negatively."

In each case, Lanigan says the caseworkers were following their training and procedures. Under the freedom of information law, Action News inspected the New York State training manuals and guidelines for child protective caseworkers. It's clear that caseworkers have a lot to consider within the law when they investigate complaints of abuse. As it may apply to the Erin Maxwell case, we found a this reference to "hazardous" living conditions as "health hazards such as exposed rotting garbage, food, human or animal waste throughout the living quarters" But the manual also reads, "safety factors should not automatically be equated with the presence of immediate danger of serious harm" but "should be viewed as red flag alerts." It says the "goal" is to "keep the family together."

When asked if the Maxwell's manipulated the system by cleaning up their home and then going back to their old ways, Lanigan replied, "People can clean up and you turn around... you're out of sight. So they don't care anymore and we do not have the authority to continue to be involved with the family under law."

Lanigan also says each of her 19 and a half caseworkers are juggling 20 abuse and neglect cases at any given time. She adds those cases are growing at an alarming rate, 2-thousand 107 last year. Plus the Social Services Commissioner says over the last two years about half of her child protective caseworkers have left. "It creates a lot of stress for them and unless they find some good ways to be able to cope and support one another, we see a lot of turnover."

Because of the conditions Erin Maxwell was subjected to during her years at the home in Palermo, State Senator John DeFrancisco has proposed "Erin's law." It would significantly change the way child protective services investigates complaints of abuse and neglect.

Jackie Siver helped write Erin's law. Her daughter befriended Erin, and it was Siver who registered the complaint in 2006 after she witnessed conditions in Erin's home. "I don't want to come across that they didn't have the ability to intervene, because they did."

Never the less Siver feels the new law addresses problems with policies and procedures. Besides increasing penalties for child abuse, Erin's law would expand the legal definition of "neglected child" to make it easier for child protective caseworkers to intervene. When caseworkers are called back to a home after two or more reports, they would be accompanied by a police officer. Finally Erin's law would require that calls to the child abuse hotline in Albany be recorded. Siver claims people were calling the hotline about Erin Maxwell as recently as last April. "In Erin's case, had there been a record of all those calls maybe something different would have happened."

The State Office of Children and Family Services is currently reviewing how Oswego County's DSS workers handled the Maxwell case. When asked if there are other Erin Maxwell's yet to be discovered, Lanigan said "I don't have an answer, a definitive answer to that, but I have a fear."