FARGO — Cass County commissioners question whether a social services director’s plan to address claims of a toxic work environment in the child protection unit will improve culture there, but one leader says firing management would not be possible without a battle.

“Obviously, we’re really broken here,” Commission Chairwoman Mary Scherling said of the work environment. “The trust has been broken.”

County employees, parents and residents almost filled a conference room where the Cass County Social Services Board met Monday, Oct. 21, to discuss an investigation into what Social Services Director Chip Ammerman has called “systemic problems” within the child protection unit.

No action was taken during the two-hour meeting, but Ammerman laid out a three-page plan to address the issues, including changes for the workflow, himself, Family Services Division Manager Linda Dorff and unit supervisors.

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The investigation and Monday’s meeting stemmed from the resignation letter of Jennifer Aldinger. She was a caseworker in the unit for two months before resigning in April, and her letter detailed allegations of bullying by Ammerman, Dorff and her supervisor Rick Van Camp, as well as increased caseloads that had become unmanageable. Seven caseworkers wrote a letter to county officials in June 2018 raising similar concerns about unmanageable caseloads.

Sgt. Joel Stading of the Cass County Sheriff's Office talks about his investigation into allegations of a hostile work environment in the county’s child protection unit during a special meeting of the Cass County Social Services Board on Monday, Oct. 21. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Sgt. Joel Stading of the Cass County Sheriff's Office talks about his investigation into allegations of a hostile work environment in the county’s child protection unit during a special meeting of the Cass County Social Services Board on Monday, Oct. 21. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Sgt. Joel Stading of the Cass County Sheriff’s Office investigated Aldinger's allegations and didn’t find any ethical violations. But “most, if not all, staff stated that they felt the stress level was very high, and the morale level was very low,” according to his investigation report.

“A couple of (staff) have even said when Sunday night rolls around, they dread Monday because they know they have to go back to the office,” Stading told the board.

County Commissioner Chad Peterson, who chairs the Social Services Board, said Ammerman’s plan is a great start, but he expressed doubt it would help improve the culture.

“I don’t know if you can train someone out of this,” Peterson said, adding that he wanted to see frequent reports — the first he suggested be done Nov. 4 and a second in a month — to see if the work environment had improved. “If I don’t see improvements in a month, something else needs to happen.”

Cass County Social Services Director Chip Ammerman speaks during a special meeting of the Cass County Social Services Board on Monday, Oct. 21, to discuss allegations of a hostile work environment and heavy caseloads in the child protection unit. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Cass County Social Services Director Chip Ammerman speaks during a special meeting of the Cass County Social Services Board on Monday, Oct. 21, to discuss allegations of a hostile work environment and heavy caseloads in the child protection unit. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Peterson's wife, Ashley Peterson, was one of the seven caseworkers who sent a June 2018 letter to county officials about unwieldy caseloads. She resigned July 31, 2019.

Ammerman asked how the board wanted him to measure improvement, to which Peterson replied staff should say they want to come to work on Monday. Ammerman said he and staff have implemented some changes, but the culture is not going to improve immediately.

County commissioners suggested conducting climate surveys to track staff opinions, perhaps as often as semi-annually. Others asked if human resources could be involved in doing exit interviews and surveys instead of leaving that work to social services leadership.

Ammerman said employee surveys are taken once every two years internally and are presented to the board. Some crowd members whispered that once every two years isn’t enough.

Peterson said the changes in Ammerman's plan are not substantive. He said the first handful of suggestions for Dorff hinted that she should not talk to anyone without permission first.

“You can’t be in that kind of environment,” Peterson said. “Every door must be open always.”

Peterson stopped short of suggesting Dorff should lose her job. When Ammerman asked if that’s what the chairman was getting at, Peterson said the system in which social services operates doesn’t allow someone to be fired without “a very bad thing happening."

“A termination at this stage I don’t think is even possible without a … legal fight,” Peterson said, but the county can look at shifting responsibilities and positions.

Scherling asked if the county could hire an outside consultant to help investigate the situation and improve the climate in the child protection unit.

“We can hire a dozen more workers,” she said. “If they come in and three months later they’re gone again, we have done nothing.”

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County Administrator Robert Wilson said he's looking into that option, noting that he could see how dysfunctional the child protection unit was after meeting with staff. “I’m not sure a lot of processes move the needle unless we build the trust,” he said.

Michele Higdem stood up during the meeting to ask if she could speak, but was not allowed to do so. Peterson said residents can ask to be put on meeting agendas to voice their concerns. He also encouraged them to contact him directly.

Higdem spoke to The Forum about her experiences with Dorff and the child protection unit after her children were put in foster care.

She said the unit ignored her concerns, which has resulted in her family living broken lives. But she appeared optimistic now that the issues have come to light.

“I can’t help but feel that this is it, that someone is going to listen,” she said.