UNION BATTLES ACS REFORM

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Despite recent evidence that the city child welfare agency is still plagued by unqualified caseworkers, the union that represents the workers is once again challenging the agency’s plans for reform. AFSCME Local 371 expects to file several lawsuits in the coming weeks challenging the recent decision by the Administration for Children’s Services to reassign 314 child welfare and child protective workers to other agencies.

According to ACS, the workers didn’t measure up to new eligibility and educational requirements. But union officials claim that in many cases ACS unfairly rejected workers because of race, age or national origin. Faye Moore, the union’s vice president for grievances and legal services, said that the agency rejected a disproportionate number of Nigerian workers, nearly all of the applicants with disabilities and many employees who had filed grievances against ACS. “This is union-busting pure and simple,” she said.

ACS spokesperson Jennifer Falk said the application forms don’t ask questions about race, ethnicity, religion or place of origin, and pointed out that every denied application was reviewed by a deputy director and by Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta. “Performance was the only criterion in the manager’s evaluation of an applicant,” Falk said.

The agency is in the middle of a three-year-old reform plan that grew out of a torrent of negative publicity surrounding the 1995 death of 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo. In 1996, the agency started requiring caseworkers to have at least 24 college credits in social work and pass an English proficiency exam. Nearly 3,500 of the agency’s 3,800 caseworkers who applied for the new titles met the agency’s new standards.

The union’s lawsuits come at a particularly bad time for ACS. Last week, a report released by Children’s Rights, Inc. alleged new “patterns of failure” by the caseworkers and managers who investigate reports of child abuse and neglect. The week before that, an ACS employee who spent nearly a decade as a child protective caseworker was arrested on charges of enslaving a Nigerian girl for nine years. She had been promoted to a supervisory position last year.

This isn’t the first time union officials have attempted to stop agency reforms. According to advocates, the union helped kill local legislation introduced four years ago that would have required caseworkers to pass competency tests. Soon afterward, the union filed a lawsuit challenging ACS’s tougher eligibility requirements for caseworkers and supervisors. That suit was thrown out in State Supreme Court.