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Report: 3 Cass County social services leaders caused toxic work setting, fears of retaliation

Employees described working at child protection services as “cycle of domestic violence” or “bad marriage," investigation said.

The Cass County Courthouse in October 2016.
The Cass County Courthouse in Fargo. Forum file photo
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FARGO — Three Cass County child protective leaders have contributed to fears of retaliation and a backlog of cases and services, according to an internal investigation in which employees compared the work environment to a “cycle of domestic violence.”

The report, dated Tuesday, Jan. 18, questions whether Family Services Division Manager Linda Dorff and social worker supervisors Rick VanCamp and Tamara Anderson should return to the Cass County Human Service Zone. The three were placed on paid administrative leave in early December after an employee filed a complaint against them in November.

The report obtained by The Forum through an open records request revealed other recurring issues that Dorff, VanCamp and Anderson failed to address. Many employees interviewed for the investigation referred to the toxic work environment as a “cycle of domestic violence” or “bad marriage,” according to the report.

“Interviewees provided multiple examples of Ms. Dorff, Mr. VanCamp and Ms. Anderson coordinated retaliatory responses toward employees who expressed dissatisfaction and/or concerns related to their immediate supervisor,” the report said.

The documents also shed light on how growing caseloads, as well as the delayed intervention and response to children at risk of neglect and abuse, were the result of action, or inaction, by the three.

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The investigation didn’t explicitly recommend Dorff, VanCamp and Anderson be fired or moved out of their leadership positions, but employees have said morale and productivity has improved since VanCamp and Dorff were escorted from the office on Dec. 1, according to the report.

Staff fear retaliation if they return, the report said.

“Careful consideration should be given as to whether (VanCamp, Dorff and Anderson) should return to (the Human Services Zone),” the report said.

It recommended the North Dakota Department of Human Services take an active role in oversight and support to stabilize the child protection unit in Cass County.

VanCamp declined to comment. A message left for Dorff was not returned. Attempts to reach Anderson were unsuccessful.

‘We'll direct them on how it is here'

Lynn Flieth and Kim Jacobson, then-interim zone co-directors who were appointed in August after Director Pearl Ferguson-Mell resigned, started the investigation in October after Dorff alerted them to complaints from staff about their supervisors.

As the co-directors investigated, more complaints surfaced until an employee filed a formal grievance on Nov. 5. The employee said they met with VanCamp on Nov. 2 to discuss issues the social worker was struggling with.

The grievance said VanCamp was dismissive and made the employee “feel like I’m the problem.” The employee, who said that has happened before when they brought up concerns in the past, began to cry and ended the meeting, the grievance said.

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Shortly after, the employee heard VanCamp talking to Dorff and Anderson about the meeting and claimed he mocked the employee for crying, the grievance said. Anderson positively encouraged VanCamp, the employee said.

Dorff said, “We just need to ride this wave,” and when a long-term director is hired, “We’ll direct them on how it is here,” according to the grievance.

Dorff also reportedly said that Flieth and Jacobson were “just here to observe,” the employee said in suggesting Dorff, VanCamp and Anderson had plans to “drive the narrative for the new director.”

“It sounded very much like they were plotting/scheming something,” the employee wrote.

At least one other employee corroborated the conversation between the three leaders, the investigation said.

Gail Bollinger took over as the long-term director in December, after Dorff, VanCamp and Anderson were placed on administrative leave.

‘Alliance’ and ‘us versus them’

Jacobson and Flieth interviewed 23 people, including Dorff, VanCamp, Anderson, 13 child protection service workers and four case management supervisors, for the investigation.

Staff reported VanCamp calling out staff in a demeaning way in front of others. He also failed to provide adequate training and support for staff, with employees feeling he was inaccessible to them, according to the report.

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VanCamp’s subordinates had a large number of open cases that needed his help to close. Staff from the North Dakota Department of Human Services came to Cass County in December and helped close those cases.

The report found Dorff contributed to distrust in the workplace and aligned upper management, supervisors and staff against each other. The majority of interviewees called the relationship Dorff, VanCamp and Anderson shared an “alliance,” with Dorff providing protection instead of holding the supervisor accountable, the report said.

Two employees claimed Dorff reached out to staff individually to find out “who was gossiping” or complaining about supervisors, the report said, noting staff described her actions as “a witch hunt.”

Anderson didn’t bully or intimidate staff, but employees said she was complacent in allowing misconduct instead of taking action to protect staff, the report said. Staff also feared bringing up complaints to Anderson, believing she would alert Dorff and spark retaliation, the report said.

Staff said Anderson was out of the office frequently and was unresponsive to calls and emails, according to the report.

“When asked about management style, Ms. Anderson was described as 'not a micromanager, rather, she simply does not manage,'” the report said.

Dorff has been with Cass County social services since 1986. She previously was a supervisor in child protective services there before become a manager in 2017.

VanCamp and Anderson joined Cass County social services in 1989. VanCamp has been a supervisor since 2002, and Anderson a manager since 2017.

Moving forward

The report comes almost two years after Dorff and VanCamp were reprimanded in another investigation sparked by allegations they contributed to a hostile work environment in the child protective services unit.

Anderson was not disciplined as a result of the investigation, but it mentioned she was unable to make decisions or give guidance to subordinates when needed.

Dorff and VanCamp completed improvement plans.

A fourth Cass County social services leader was recently placed on administrative leave. Economic Assistance Manager Sidney Schock was escorted from the office Jan. 11, pending allegations of bullying, harassment, discrimination and intimidation.

It's unclear if that case is connected to Dorff, VanCamp and Anderson, though Schock was not named in the investigative report. Documents regarding the complaint against Schock won't be made public until the investigation into his matter is complete.

The recent investigation said Dorff and VanCamp haven't changed their behavior, despite the improvement plans, training and other interventions. VanCamp’s behavior has contributed to a dysfunctional setting in child protective services, the report said.

Dorff has not proved that she can hold Anderson and VanCamp accountable for their actions, according to the investigation.

Anderson, VanCamp and Dorff will get a chance to review and respond to the findings of the report, said Cass County Administrator Robert Wilson. It could be several weeks before a decision is made on potential disciplinary action, including whether they will keep their jobs, Wilson added.

Bollinger understands the importance of a positive, productive work environment, Wilson said, adding he is confident and hopeful about the direction the zone is headed.

“Serving citizens and clients of the Cass County Human Service Zone, and creating an environment where employees can do their best work, are our highest priorities,” he said in an email to The Forum. “When and where we have not met that expectation, we must do better.”

Related Topics: CASS COUNTY
April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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