St. Lawrence County foster parents make shocking allegations

Updated: Jun. 16, 2021 at 5:26 PM EDT
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WATERTOWN, New York (WWNY) - Foster parents are making shocking allegations in St. Lawrence County. They say children are taken from good homes – sometimes in retaliation, sometimes for profit.

Twelve letters were handed to St. Lawrence County legislators. The writers allege social services workers lie, bully, deceive and rip children out of good foster homes – and sometimes profit from it.

“You do not believe that an agency responsible for protecting children would ever put them in harm’s way – until you’re right down in the middle of it and see it for yourself. It’s a terrifying thought,” said Courtney Fantone, foster parent/CHILD founder.

In her own letter, Fantone wrote she has fostered nearly 50 children. But her last ones, five siblings, were suddenly taken away in March last year.

She said it was retaliation for standing up to social services in court, and trying to get the children medical and mental health services they needed.

“They were part of our family. We had every intention of adopting those children,” said Fantone.

She’s in court fighting to get them back. And it inspired Fantone to take action. She took part in protests, started her own group, CHILD, and heard more stories.

“We got a large influx of phone calls and emails from foster parents, … kinship parents, past foster parents. You name it. They were calling,” said Fantone.

The most serious allegation is that children are taken from good foster parents and given to social service employees, who allegedly want the foster care stipends that come with them. The county says it’s legal to have agency employees do foster care.

“But is it a practice the county should be engaged in? I know that some counties have come to the conclusion it is not. So we’ll be looking very closely at that,” said St. Lawrence County Attorney Stephen Button.

That’s not the only reform the county is considering. Some changes have already been made.

Last August, Cynthia Ackerman was hired as commissioner. Agency general counsel David Haggard was laid off in May. Button took on that duty. On Wednesday, Ackerman was not available for comment.

“There are some institutional changes that might be necessary. I believe Ms. Ackerman, who is the current commissioner of social services, is looking at those things very closely and is dedicated to trying to get things right,” said Button.

Recently, the legislature authorized hiring 12 caseworkers and 4 supervisors. Many of those were brand new positions.

Below is a timeline of comings and goings related to the St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services:

  • March 2020: SLC Commissioner Social Services Chris Riedehs retires.
  • March 2020: Heather Wenzel appointed interim commissioner social services.
  • April 2020: David Haggard appointed general counsel for St. Lawrence County department of social services.
  • July 2020: Heather Wenzel resigns as interim commissioner social services.
  • August 2020: Cindy Ackerman appointed SLC commissioner social services.
  • March 2021: Family Court Judge Cecily Morris announces she will not seek re-election.
  • April 2021: County Attorney’s office takes on job of representing social services in court.
  • April 2021: Legislature authorizes hiring 9 caseworkers and 1 case supervisor in social services.
  • May 2021: David Haggard laid off.
  • June 2021: Legislature authorizes hiring 3 caseworkers and 3 case supervisors.

Source: Legislative resolutions, WWNY archives, county attorney

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