High staff turnover and yawning job vacancy rates may have contributed to the vicious attack on a New York youth worker Feb. 7, who prosecuters say was supervising 16 teen-age girls alone when she was brutally beaten and burned.
The attack by eight girls at the Pleasantville Cottage School in Mount Pleasant allegedly lasted for nearly an hour. The girls, who reportedly disconnected phone lines before the counselor arrived, beat the woman with her cordless phone, cut her hair with scissors, pushed her down two flights of steps, doused her with bleach and rubbing alcohol and set her on fire. She spent about two weeks in the hospital.
Youth social workers were shocked at the brutality of the assault at the school, run by the Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA), but were not surprised that someone in their field was attacked.
“Violence against workers is something that’s been going on for 20 years,” said Mary McCarthy, director of the Social Work Education Consortium in Albany, N.Y. “Were we surprised that someone was hurt? No. We were surprised at the level of violence? Yes.”
Government agencies are increasingly diverting potentially violent teens from crowded mental health facilities to treatment centers like Pleasantville, youth workers said.
The Pleasantville attack highlights not only the danger of working with troubled youth, but also the risk brought on by the field’s high turnover and chronic staff shortages. The victim was alone, despite state and industry standards that call for at least two counselors to supervise that number of girls. New York state guidelines recommend a 1-to-9 counselor-to-student ratio.
Pleasantville has a staff of about 200 employees and houses roughly 200 boys and girls. It receives funding from New York City, the state and the federal governments and some private sources.
A second counselor who was to share supervision with the victim quit two days before the attack and had not been replaced, school officials said. They could not explain why a second supervisor was not hired temporarily.
One possible explanation is the industry’s 10 percent vacancy rate. “You don’t have anyone on backup, especially for nights,” McCarthy said.
Youth social workers are not only hard to find, they are hard to keep. The turnover rate in downstate New York was 46 percent last year, said Edith Holzer, director of public affairs for the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, based in New York City.
“Turnover has been a problem for at least a decade. But it has been getting worse,” she said.
Holzer said a new counselor without a master’s degree in social work could earn as little as $20,000 a year. The teens they supervise often make more in work-study programs.
Low salaries are partly to blame for the high turnover at Pleasantville, said Jane Barowitz, spokeswoman for the Jewish Child Care Association. But Barowitz said the staff is trained extensively, and that after the attack the school hired Kroll Associates of New York to evaluate security.
Would More Money Help?
According to the city’s Admin-istration for Children’s Services, New York has 28,000 children in foster care. About 1,000 are in large residential congregate care facilities like Pleasantville. The city is one of several public agencies that refer children to Pleasantville and other private facilities and pay for the services.
Youth sent to Pleasantville generally have not been in the juvenile justice system and do not have histories of violence. But they need help.
New York City sends children to Pleasantville who have been referred through the city’s Persons in Need of Supervision program or family courts.
“They’re troubled kids whose families have sought help from the court to voluntarily put their children in facilities where they can get help,” said Nancy Poderycki, spokeswoman for the city’s children’s service agency.
City and county payments to facilities are reimbursed by the state through a complex funding formula based on state and federal guidelines. State guidelines say New York City can pay Pleasantville up to $188.07 per child per day.
Service providers are pushing the state to simplify the fee system and increase the payments. That, in theory, would allow providers to increase worker salaries, in turn reducing the vacancy and turnover rates.
A spokesman for the state Office of Children and Family Services said that may not be the case. “You can’t attribute this issue to funding only,” said Bill Van Slyke. He also said city officials are not paying the maximum allowed under the state formulas. “We’re not sure why. Certainly, they’re faced with an extraordinary fiscal crisis.”
City officials said they follow state payment guidelines.
Through its parent organization, the facility’s program is accredited by the Council on Accreditation for Children and Family Services (COA). The nonprofit council accredits about 1,000 organizations in the United States and Canada that provide child welfare and behavioral health care services.
Accreditation is based on a site visit and self-study, council officials said. There are about 560 standards for facilities like Pleasantville.
The JCCA was last accredited in 1997, and is in the process of renewing its four-year accreditation. An incident as serious as the attack, as well as recent allegations of criminal activities by other residents, could jeopardize Pleasantville’s accreditation, said Jennifer Levitz, director of accreditation for the COA.
In addition to the criminal investigation, both the state and city family service agencies are reviewing the facility. Pleasantville is licensed by the state.
And it has a good reputation within the field. “The fact that this happened at this facility is counter-intuitive,” said Holzer of the family and child care council.
“There was no indication that this type of incident was likely, but these are troubled youth,” Poderycki said.
Beyond their concern for the injured worker, Holzer and McCarthy also lament the effect the attack will have on the field’s ability to attract talented young adult workers.
“Imagine what this story about Pleasantville is going to do to recruitment,” Holzer said.
Contact: Jewish Child Care Association (212) 425-3333, www.jccany.org.
Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report.