FARGO — Systemic problems troubling Cass County's child protection unit came to light this month after a caseworker's resignation spurred a county investigation into allegations of a hostile work environment, as well as concerns about heavy caseloads.

However, it turns out county leaders were warned a year before the investigation began that increased caseloads had become unmanageable, according to a whistleblower letter The Forum obtained through a public records request.

The warning came from seven caseworkers who signed the June 1, 2018, letter, which said increased caseloads hindered social workers from "providing the best possible services." Also, a focus on prioritizing more severe cases led to missed deadlines and delays in responding to other cases, “which could have a detrimental impact on the safety of children and families,” the letter said.

"We find it necessary to make a clear statement ... we are unable to maintain the enormously high volume of child protection assessments, which has prevented us as professionals from providing the best possible services to our community,” the letter said.

The letter was sent to Social Services Director Chip Ammerman and managers in the child protection unit — Linda Dorff, Rick Van Camp and Tami Anderson — as well as human resources officials, County Administrator Robert Wilson and County Commissioner Vern Bennett, who held the social services portfolio at the time. Bennett died last month at the age of 86.

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The signers of the letter met with Ammerman and Human Resources Director Cindy Stoick. Wilson was not present for the meeting, but was told the issues were "understood, acknowledged and were being resolved."

“Quite simply, we trusted that,” Wilson told The Forum.

Ammerman said plans of improvement were discussed because of the letter, but the child protection unit got “caught up in the pace” of work and didn’t follow through on some strategies.

Since the letter was sent, five of the signers — Chad Fischer, Larissa Marsh, Mandee Wersinger, Hannah Ritteman and Ashley Peterson — have quit working in the unit. Two signers, Sarah Goerts and Tessa Evenson, still work there.

The letter was sent about a year before the Cass County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation in June 2019 prompted by a resignation letter from caseworker Jennifer Aldinger. Aldinger worked for two months in the child protection unit before submitting her resignation letter on April 11, 2019.

Ammerman and Stoick asked the sheriff’s office to investigate Aldinger's claims of a hostile work environment. The sheriff's office received the request in April 2019, but due to position changes in the sheriff's office, an investigator did not receive the case until June 2019, according to the investigation report.

Because Aldinger’s letter presented allegations of a hostile work environment and unethical practices, Ammerman said it necessitated an investigation. He called Aldinger’s allegations inflammatory, but he noted that the investigation raised concerns of systemic problems within the child protection unit, including unmanageable caseloads.

Ammerman is working on a plan to address the investigation and needs within the child protection unit, which will be reviewed by the Cass County Social Services Board at a meeting on Monday, Oct. 21. Wilson said he believes the unit needs a comprehensive review.

'The right to be protected'

Caseworkers were handling 30 to 40 cases each when the whistleblowers' 2018 letter was written. The letter said such caseloads do not comply with guidelines set by the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

Ideally, a caseworker should not have more than 15 assessments in progress within a 31-day period. That number is more of an aspiration than a requirement, Ammerman said.

“Now me personally, I think it should be seven to nine, so they can do quality (work), and we’re not killing staff,” he said.

The North Dakota Department of Human Services was unaware of the whistleblowers' 2018 letter, but it was contacted by Aldinger about the heavy caseloads, said Marlys Baker, state administrator for child protection services.

Baker said Cass County is out of compliance with state guidelines, but it is not breaking any laws. Counties don't have control of how many cases they get, but the state is working with the county to “balance the case flow while keeping the focus on the safety of children,” she wrote in an email to The Forum.

“Children who are reported to be in danger must be seen timely, even if it means that a worker receives more assigned cases than would be desirable," she said.

Cass County periodically prioritizes cases that need immediate attention while delaying less critical cases. That alleviates caseloads for social workers, but it’s not ideal, Ammerman said.

“Every child deserves the right to be protected,” he said.

County Commissioner Chad Peterson currently holds the social services portfolio and did so when Aldinger submitted her April 2019 resignation letter, which was sent to him and Stoick. He was also aware of the whistleblowers' 2018 letter. His wife, Ashley Peterson, was one of the seven caseworkers who signed the letter before she resigned July 31, 2019.

Wilson and Chad Peterson said they don’t believe there was a conflict of interest with Chad Peterson holding the social services portfolio since the portfolios are rotated every couple of years. Chad Peterson also sits on the Cass County Social Services Board, and while local officials make the final hiring decision on social workers, the state chooses a pool of finalists for the job.

Caseworkers deal with awful situations on a daily basis, and though caseloads are part of the problem, it’s the environment that needs to be fixed, the commissioner said.

Social services has added additional staff, but “you could add 50 more people, and we’re still going to have a problem,” he said.

“A symbolic change is not what this department needs,” he said. “It just needs a substantive change.”

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Positive reviews

Performance reviews for Ammerman and Dorff, the manager of Cass County's Family Services Division, before the investigation were mostly positive, according to documents obtained by The Forum. A public records request revealed no complaints against the two prior to Aldinger's letter.

Ammerman received positive marks in all categories in his last review, which was in 2017. Commissioner Bennett wrote few comments in the evaluation, other than Ammerman does “an outstanding job in all areas of responsibility” and there were “no areas requiring improvement.”

Reviews of department heads are done at the discretion of the portfolio holder, Wilson said, so they may not be done every year.

Supervisors, staff and community members surveyed in 2017 and 2018 said Dorff has been a leader who embraces change, is able to meet staff needs, handles issues promptly and effectively, and is supportive.

“Linda has maintained a very positive attitude and continues to reflect on her actions for ways to improve,” the evaluations said.

Last month’s review also was mostly positive, though it mentioned the investigation. Those surveyed for Dorff’s review noted “overwhelming caseloads and demands,” lack of support from leadership and “antagonistic interaction” with Dorff. Dorff did not return a phone message from The Forum seeking comment.

“From the surveys, the impact of this dysfunction is apparent on the entire division and needs to be formally addressed with an intentional progressive plan to address the negativity that is pronounced,” Ammerman wrote, adding that Dorff was “active in attempting to address” the issues by hiring emergency staff, reviewing practices, addressing supervision issues and working with the state.