FARGO — Cass County Social Services staff believe nothing will change regarding widespread problems in their department, according to a report that suggests the department’s leader may need to be replaced.
The Cass County Commission and the Cass County Human Service Zone Board reviewed at their Monday meetings the report detailing a survey of 139 former and current social services employees. Staff across all divisions disclosed dissatisfaction to different degrees, but “consistent throughout the divisions was the existence of a negative culture” within the social services department that created “difficult working conditions and increasing levels of stress in employees.”
The report said one option to be explored is replacing interim Zone Director Chip Ammerman, who was the social services director before North Dakota consolidated county social services departments into regions. The report's recommendations section claimed Ammerman lacks empathy toward employees and has an "authoritarian and self-protective attitude."
"Under normal circumstances, I would recommend a performance improvement plan," Patricia Monson, the attorney who compiled the report, said of Ammerman.
The county hired Monson to create the report after an investigation into the county's child protection unit found there was a toxic work environment in the social services department. The Family Services Division, which oversees child protection services, had the most serious problems, Monson's report found.
"No serious efforts were undertaken to improve the unacceptable working environment in Family Services until a complaint filed to the state was made by an employee, which garnered media attention and (was) investigated by the Cass County Sheriff's Department," the report said. "Management might never have been forced to address these conditions if not for the publicity the agency received."
Ammerman told The Forum the report painted a harsher picture of the agency, adding that many positive things are happening within social services.
“We’ve made significant effort to make a positive and strength-based culture in our agency,” Ammerman said. “There are some staff who are not noticing it. I believe a large percentage of our staff do recognize the attempts we are making."
He has attributed problems to heavy caseloads and systemic issues. He also has said caseworkers must deal with tough situations that can cause secondary trauma.
Monson’s report said caseloads are part of the problem, but employees reported a lack of support from leadership and being berated for suggesting changes to improve culture at social services.
“There is a longstanding feeling of hopelessness that has been engendered into them,” Monson said Monday.
Employees feel like they have no say in a "team decision-making" model Ammerman said would be implemented several years ago. Staff fear retaliation if they ask for improvements, the report said.
For example, one staff member asked a supervisor to reconsider a decision, the supervisor became defensive, angry and said “just go do as you are told,” the report said. Human resources staff reported that Ammerman rarely consults them about employee complaints and calls them “whiners” and “trouble-makers.”
Upper management also has not received enough training when it comes to employee relations, the report said.
Ammerman said he agreed with parts of the report and that his department can always do better. But he said some of the accusations are “tainted to a direction that I disagree with.”
“Unfortunately anything I say is going to be dismissive,” Ammerman said.
He said the most vocal people go to human resources to complain, and some have ulterior motives to move up. “There is going to be conflict,” Ammerman said.
Monson interviewed 19 employees directly, and some of them cried or were hesitant to be interviewed for fear of retribution.
A previous study commissioned by the county suggested changes be made to improve culture, but Monson said problems have continued to build up after a failure to follow through on plans to change the work environment.
“What it really points to is nothing has really been done, or what has been done has not been effective,” Zone Board member Brian Hagen said.
Ammerman said staff take part in training to deal with stress, but Zone Board member and County Commissioner Ken Pawluk questioned why Monson submitted such a critical report if so much training is being done.
“With all of the training … that is happening, it doesn’t seem very effective,” Pawluk said.
Mary Scherling, a county commissioner and Zone Board member, noted that Monson's report said social services employees criticized the County Commission for not acting to improve the work environment. Some commissioners have not taken enough interest in the agency, and there is distrust between the commission and Ammerman, the report said.
"This lack of knowledge has contributed to some of the issues at (social services) by, for instance, not holding the director accountable for his part in causing or failing to fix those issues," the report said.
Scherling pointed to previous moves to investigate culture within the department, plans made to improve the environment and a lack of follow-through on the matter.
“Now we have another report in front of us," she said. "What are we going to do about it?”
No action, other than to accept the report, was taken Monday by the Zone Board. The County Commission did the same with little discussion.
However, Hagen said the Zone Board owes it to social services employees "to fix this and come up with a well-thought-out plan."