FARGO — The director of Cass County Social Services says he's working to solve systemic problems in the department after an internal investigation spurred by a former child protection caseworker’s resignation letter revealed stress from heavy caseloads and allegations of a hostile work environment.

A Cass County sheriff’s sergeant investigated claims made by Jennifer Aldinger, who resigned April 11 as a caseworker with the county's child protection services unit. Her resignation letter detailed increased caseloads, as well as allegations of misconduct, bullying and retaliation.

“Cass County’s blatant disregard for the safety and well-being of children and families they have been entrusted to serve is something that I do not feel I can continue to be a part of," Aldinger wrote.

The investigation was launched in June, and since then, at least two other former social services employees reported that poor leadership played a role in their decisions to leave, according to county records. One former employee, who is a county commissioner’s wife, said she was fearful of a manager most of her career, citing alleged hostility and bullying.

The investigation report said “most, if not all, staff stated that they felt the stress level was very high, and the morale level was very low.” It also cited limited access to supervisors, a lack of supervision, unmanageable workloads and fear of retaliation.

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Social Services Director Chip Ammerman, who faced allegations in Aldinger’s letter, decided with human resources staff to request an internal investigation, County Administrator Robert Wilson told The Forum Thursday, Oct. 3. The investigation was not criminal in nature, Wilson noted.

The County Social Services Board will meet Monday, Oct. 21, to discuss the findings of the investigation and review Ammerman’s recommendations for his department. “We recognize that there’s some serious concerns in that report, no doubt,” Wilson said.

Ammerman told The Forum he did not think Aldinger’s account was accurate and that her letter did an injustice to the people named in it. But he said he doesn't want to dismiss the concerns raised and noted there are other factors playing into the stress on his staff.

He pointed to secondary trauma that social services workers face from dealing with cases, some of which are emotionally distressing. Instead of finding one person to blame, he said he wants to focus on listening to his staff's concerns, find the factors that cause an unhealthy environment and implement methods to improve his department's culture.

"We did not do a good job keeping people healthy," he said. "We got caught up in the pace."

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‘Keep my head down and mouth shut’

Aldinger claims in her letter that her supervisor, Rick Van Camp, told her to “keep my head down and mouth shut” and “do as I’m told” when she questioned on March 5 instructions to do a full assessment for a child when it apparently was not required.

“Due to my questioning, Rick informed me that workers who have questioned management in the past no longer work with Cass County Social Services,” she wrote.

On April 1, Ammerman, Family Services Division Manager Linda Dorff and social worker supervisor Tamara Anderson discussed the incident with Aldinger, who was told it was her word against Van Camp’s, she wrote in the letter. Aldinger was put on administrative leave later that day due to accusations that she improperly collected information on social worker caseloads.

In her letter, Aldinger wrote that she found some employees had 30 to 50 open cases at one time — when she started working a full caseload, she was told she should have 14 cases a month. At times, an employee had been assigned up to 70 cases in a two-month period, she wrote.

She also claimed some cases were not assigned for weeks at a time. She contacted the North Dakota Department of Human Services about heavy caseloads and wait periods.

Van Camp and Dorff did not return phone messages seeking comment Thursday. The report indicated Van Camp was surprised by Aldinger's accusations against him, which he denied.

The investigation was unable to confirm whether delaying the assignment of cases went against policy. Management said it implemented a policy to limit the number of cases assigned to employees so they could focus on smaller caseloads, according to the investigation report.

The report said a lack of access to management made it difficult to close cases, which kept workers from moving onto other cases.

Link to county commissioner

Ashley Peterson, wife of Cass County Commissioner Chad Peterson, had been a county employee for more than 11 years, and she left her post at social services July 31, more than a month after the investigation began.

Her resignation letter and exit interview cite bullying, a toxic work environment and “ridiculous caseload with no relief in sight.” Most of her complaints are aimed at Dorff.

“I have been fearful of Linda for most of my employment due to her hostility and anger, which has been expressed to me when she has been dissatisfied with my behavior,” Ashley Peterson wrote.

Ashley Peterson claimed Dorff has made inappropriate comments about other employees. The investigation report also cited concerns from other employees about how Dorff treated staff, describing her demeanor as mean, intimidating, unprofessional, controlling and aggressive.

Chad Fischer, who was with social services for six years, left the department on Aug. 21, citing a disconnect between staff and management, according to his exit interview.

A third employee has left the child protective services unit since the start of the investigation, Wilson said. The Forum requested that person's resignation letter and exit interview, but had not received those documents as of publication time.

The Forum's attempts to reach Ashley Peterson and Aldinger for comment were unsuccessful Thursday. Chad Peterson, who holds the social services portfolio for the Cass County Commission, did not return messages seeking comment.

Seeking a path forward

Caseloads in the county's child protection unit have been on the rise for the last three years, Ammerman said. Over the last two years, caseloads increased 21%, he said.

"Our resources do not meet the demand, which increases the stress, which impacts relationships and communication ," he said.

Ammerman said his department has added employees but remains understaffed, with caseloads still above the standards set by policy.

Wilson said the social services board doesn’t meet again until early November, but the county felt it was necessary to call a special meeting before then. “It was a recognition that there are some serious issues raised here and a real desire to proactively address those and identify a way to make needed changes and move forward in a positive direction,” he said.

Wilson said Ammerman is taking a “comprehensive, methodical look” at the investigation's findings to develop “a solution and a path forward to address these issues."