Senior Jefferson County DSS worker claims company broke legal guidelines, is preserving her from her granddaughter | Authorities

WATERTOWN — A senior Jefferson County Department of Social Services employee is accusing the agency of breaking the law in a custody case involving her granddaughter.

Jennifer A. Constance, the county’s child support enforcement unit coordinator and a 24-year employee of DSS, stood before the Jefferson County Board of Legislators on Tuesday and said the agency has made serious mistakes that have prevented her from gaining custody of her granddaughter.

“I don’t understand this,” she said. “My heart is broken. My granddaughter looks at me and says ‘Grandma, how many more days do I stay?’”

In an hour-and-a-half presentation to the board’s Health and Human Services Committee, Mrs. Constance said her 4-year-old granddaughter was removed from her parents’ care in 2018, but she was never notified that the child had entered foster care, despite case records stating she was.

Mrs. Constance came prepared with a stack of documents she shared with legislators. She read from a copy of the packet, referencing the law, court records from her own case and the DSS handbook.

Some parts, the laws detailing the rights she hath as a grandmother, she knew by heart.

State law requires that immediate family members, including grandparents, of a child removed from their home by Child Protective Services be notified that the child is in DSS custody. The law also requires that those family members be notified of their rights, including to seek custody of the child, within a set period of time. Mrs. Constance said she received no notification and no letter detailing her rights in this case at all.

“I work literally within feet of the same individuals handling (my granddaughter’s) case, and for seven months they didn’t contact me,” Mrs. Constance said.

It took months, and a significant amount of money spent on legal fees, for Mrs. Constance to gain grandparent visitation rights. Her granddaughter spends every other weekend at her house.

Meanwhile, she says her granddaughter was put into the custody of an unrelated third-party who was known to Mrs. Constance’s son, who is the girl’s father. Mrs. Constance said that woman was misidentified by case workers as her son’s stepsister, a paternal aunt. She said case workers later admitted in sworn court statements that they had misidentified that woman as family when she was not.

Mrs. Constance’s granddaughter has remained with that woman for about four years now, while Mrs. Constance has spent more than $65,000 and countless hours working with attorneys, learning the laws herself and trying to convince the county’s Family Court to reverse its initial decision and allow her full custody of her granddaughter.

Mrs. Constance said she’s hit wall after wall in Family Court, which she accused of siding disproportionately with DSS staffers and protecting Jefferson County.

“DSS sends 75 to 80% of the business to that Family Court, between child support and children’s services,” she said. “How far do you think Jennifer Constance is going to get?”

She’s also spoken with DSS Commissioner Teresa W. Gaffney, asking her to look into the case and perhaps offer some solution. But while she said Mrs. Gaffney offered words of support personally, she said she wasn’t able to do anything to change the situation.

“I respect that office and Theresa as a person; I have no issue with Theresa,” she said. “I don’t believe she’s vindictive, that she’s not a professional, or that she doesn’t put her heart into her work. What I do believe, and what has become obvious to me, is that in her position overseeing that agency, you cannot under any circumstances admit negligence.”

Mrs Gaffney said in an interview Wednesday that she and the rest of the staff at DSS are consistently trying their best, and while mistakes do happen, they’re used as training opportunities and corrected.

“I stand behind my workers,” she said. “Are they stressed, are they overworked? Yes, definitely. Staff turnover has been an issue, but it’s been an issue in our county and a lot of counties. That’s hit caseworkers especially hard.”

High turnover and a consistent influx of CPS cases have left the remaining caseworkers with more work per person, which has slowed down case processing times, she said.

“They’re doing the best work they can do, ensuring children’s safety,” Mrs. Gaffney said. “You won’t find a more dedicated staff than what we have.”

DSS staff are strictly limited in what they are able to discuss publicly, and cannot refer to specific cases in public comments. Mrs. Gaffney said any case involving Child Protective Services has huge potential to be contentious, and any disagreements that are brought forward are addressed to the best of the agency’s ability.

“We don’t try to hide things behind, we don’t try to cover things up,” she said. “Our No. 1 job is to ensure child safety, and my staff go above and beyond to do that.”

Mrs. Gaffney said Family Court specifically handles only the most serious cases DSS staff are unable to solve without court action. She said while it may appear that Family Court sides with DSS staff from the outside, her own staffers would tend to disagree.

“It could appear that DSS always gets what they want, but that’s because the cases are the most serious,” she said. “I will tell you, my staff don’t always get what they go to court to request. The judge is the ultimate decision maker, always, based on the evidence presented to him.”

Mrs. Constance said she has another court date scheduled within the month to reopen her granddaughter’s custody case and potentially bring her back home.

She said she’s hopeful that the county, either the legislators or DSS officials, will produce a written letter stating that DSS staffers didn’t do their due diligence in finding her, potentially convincing the court to reverse its decision to place Mrs. Constance’s granddaughter with another person. She’s brought her case to the attention of state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton; Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown; and Congresswoman Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville.

She’s also shared details of her case with investigative agencies, including the state inspector general and the US Attorney’s Office.

“There’s no reason, there’s no allegation as to why I am not the most fit and appropriate, and only relative that has been involved in (my granddaughter’s) situation since I inserted myself after being excluded,” she said. “I want (my granddaughter) back where she belongs.”

Health and Human Services Committee Chair Anthony J. Doldo, R-Watertown, said he and his committee have to absorb the information Mrs. Constance presented before deciding if they should get involved.

“We will obviously keep the public posted and updated on this, but it’s too new right now to say anything more,” he said.

Editors note: The Times has removed references to Mrs. Constance’s grandchild’s name in order to protect the child’s identity.

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