And until last month, when DCFS officials suddenly suspended Butler - just days
after The Plain Dealer reviewed her personnel file -the agency had done little
to rein her in.
The result, according to clients, child-welfare lawyers and fellow caregivers,
has been a years-long rampage by a rogue social worker who often seemed more
determined to exercise her power over mostly poor clients than to help them get
their families back on track.
Butler said in a recent telephone interview that she has always behaved
appropriately as a county social worker. She said she was suspended -- and
later forced to resign -- only because DCFS officials feared a negative story
about her and the agency in The Plain Dealer.
But court records show that Butler's "recklessness and indifference" were at
the heart of a $950,000 county payout in 2003 -- one of the biggest ever by
DCFS -- to settle a lawsuit over brain damage suffered by a foster child.
And DCFS records show that, contrary to a key agency goal, Butler has been far
more eager than her colleagues to remove children from their homes and far more
likely to keep them away longer.
A list of accusations
against social worker
According to court records, agency documents and interviews with court
officials and other child-welfare workers, Butler has also been accused of:
Keeping children isolated from their mother for weeks without authority, a
"gross abuse" of court rules, according to a Juvenile Court magistrate.
Misleading school officials about the status of children she removed from their
Using questionable drug-abuse allegations against a mother before a key court
hearing to get her to sign away custody rights to her children.
And threatening to have a mother arrested for checking on her daughter's
academic progress at school.
Off the job, police records show, Butler was charged with domestic violence
four years ago after she attacked her stepmother and vowed to return with
others to beat her up.
A carload of Butler's friends did return to the stepmother's house, a police
report said. Officers were able to avert a "major confrontation" only because
they were already on the scene. Butler later pleaded guilty to disorderly
"She's a very hurtful person," said Mark Witt, a leading child-welfare lawyer.
Witt is one of many court officials, clients and caregivers who said they
complained to DCFS officials about Butler's behavior, with little result. "She
has a belligerent disregard for the rules of court and is disrespectful to
people," he said.
Checks and balances
in place, director says
In an interview last week, DCFS Director James McCafferty acknowledged that
Butler could be "aggressive and rude," but said he thought that checks and
balances were in place to keep her under control.
McCafferty said he was not aware of specific accusations against Butler. But if
true, he said, her behavior was "not acceptable" and not sanctioned by the
"We did not allow Donna to run wild and . . . just do her own thing, by any
stretch of the imagination," he said.
Asked if Butler's glowing evaluations square with what he's learned about her
performance, McCafferty said, "We're dealing with it internally."
For the last four years, Ilana Urman, Butler's immediate supervisor, has
praised Butler's performance, including her vigorous advocacy for other members
of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Empoyees Local 1746.
The powerful union represents about 1,500 county workers in wage and benefit
negotiations with county officials.
In a 2002 performance review, while addressing Butler's adaptability, Urman
gave her high marks as a rapid learner and then praised her work with union
members. "Ms. Butler is never flexible when the rights of the bargaining unit
are in jeopardy."
In an e-mail to another county worker last summer, Urman lamented that Butler
is a union steward "who utilizes her position to get what she wants done."
But both Urman and McCafferty denied last week that Butler had more clout at
the agency because of her union role.
Urman also defended her positive appraisals of Butler, describing her as "a
very good social worker" who was aggressive in her client assessments.
In late 2002, Urman wrote, Butler "is aggressive on behalf of safety for
And in her latest evaluation, on Nov. 17, Urman described Butler as a "role
model" for other social workers.
Two days later, a Plain Dealer reporter reviewed Butler's personnel file. And
five days after that, DCFS suspended Butler for a range of infractions,
including failure to maintain a valid driver's license, falsifying county
records, and inappropriately using work time to go to court on the domestic
violence charges stemming from the confrontation with her stepmother.
Facing disciplinary proceedings, Butler, 39, resigned Dec. 9, after 15 years on
Butler said DCFS began its investigation after learning The Plain Dealer was
examining her record for a story critical of her performance. She said
McCafferty and a DCFS personnel official pressured her to resign.
"Your story has caused me to resign," she said. "Your story alone."
She said her actions over the years were consistently approved by the DCFS
chain of command.
Butler initially agreed to be interviewed more fully. But after consulting her
lawyer, she canceled the interview and declined further comment.
McCafferty denied pressuring Butler and said her supension had nothing to do
with the newspaper. He said he didn't learn of the facts of her case until late
November, when the agency got an anonymous tip about Butler's driving problems.
But records show a lengthy history of questionable conduct before that.
Behavior costs agency
As long as a decade ago, Butler's then supervisor noted that she talked down to
clients, that she sometimes created crises on cases where none existed before
and that she could be "difficult" when agency instructions didn't fit her
In 1997, Butler was reprimanded for the way she criticized DCFS's chemical
dependency unit and its managers.
She also received a poor evaluation in 1998, when her supervisor noted ongoing
complaints about her disrespectful approach.
That was the year Butler's behavior led to a $950,000 settlement -- a case in
which Butler's co-workers provided damaging evidence against her.
In May 1998, DCFS removed an 8-month-old boy from his biological mother and
placed him in a foster home under Butler's supervision. Records indicate the
boy was in good health at the time, but Butler ignored persistent warnings that
the infant was deteriorating rapidly in the foster home.
Just 10 weeks after the boy's placement, he was rushed to an emergency room,
shaking violently and near death. Ultimately diagnosed as a victim of shaken
baby syndrome, according to court records, the boy suffered permanent brain
The boy's mother sued Butler, DCFS and the county. But the suit focused
primarily on Butler, accusing her of acting "recklessly and indifferently" in
overseeing the boy's care.
A DCFS worker testified that Butler failed to respond to phone calls reporting
the baby's deteriorating health.
And an agency investigator testified that Butler became so annoyed at what she
considered insignificant questions from the foster mother that she foisted her
off on an aide.
"How could someone be so dumb?" the investigator quoted Butler as saying. "She
has two children of her own. I got sick of her." Butler later denied the
statement and defended her actions in the case as proper.
Butler also chastised the boy's biological mother for raising questions about
her son's care, according to DCFS records, telling her that she had lost the
right to have an opinion. "Your baby's all right," Butler told her, according
to the investigator's report. "Don't create a false alarm."
A year after the lawsuit was filed, Butler transferred to a family social-work
team under Urman's supervision that covers a sprawling area that includes
poverty-stricken neighborhoods on Cleveland's East Side.
Records indicate Butler has been considerably out of step with her colleagues.
With DCFS embarking on a successful campaign to slash the number of children in
foster care, the roughly 35 social workers in her office have managed to cut
their foster-child caseload by 60 percent since 2002.
But over the same period, records show the number of foster children in
Butler's roster increased by 71 percent, from 14 to 24. And over the last three
years, her monthly average of children in foster care was twice that of others
in her office. She also was the slowest in closing cases.
DCFS officials said an agency manager reviewed Butler's cases after seeing the
high numbers and found her custody decisions to be appropriate.
Butler's performance evaluations improved dramatically after her move to
Urman's team in 2000. But complaints persisted.
For example, after Maria Sowell's children were placed in foster care four
years ago, Butler's conduct offended just about everyone in the case --
including lawyers, other caregivers, a foster mother and many members of
get no results
They say they asked DCFS for a new social worker, but got nowhere.
Sowell's mother, Jean Cook, said in an interview that Butler once threatened
her for interfering in the case. " If you don't mind your own business, I'll
blow up your house,' " Cook quoted Butler as saying. "I was scared of her."
Sharon Thompson said her complaints about Butler -- also involving a threat --
fell on deaf ears at DCFS as well.
Thompson, whose teenage daughter had been placed in the home of a relative
because of problems with her mother, became concerned about her child's
She met with her daughter's teachers and learned that the girl had been cutting
classes and was in danger of failing. But when she called Butler to discuss the
problem, Thompson said, the social worker threatened to have her arrested if
she ever went to the school again.
Thompson said Butler repeatedly kept her from spending time with her child --
even though such visitations were required for Thompson to get her daughter
In one incident, Thompson said she waited 40 minutes at DCFS headquarters for a
scheduled visit before Butler showed up alone and said Thompson's daughter
wasn't emotionally ready to see her.
The girl said, however, that Butler neglected to pick her up after cheerleading
A month after Thompson complained in writing to DCFS, Butler took steps to give
legal custody of Thompson's daughter to the relative. Thompson has hired a
lawyer to challenge the move.
"Frightened for client,"
Denise Wentz is also trying to get her children back.
Wentz said that Butler used Ashley, her 14-year-old daughter from a previous
marriage, as leverage -- along with a trumped-up allegation of drug and alcohol
abuse -- to intimidate Wentz into signing away permanent custody of her three
Days before a 2003 court hearing to determine the status of the three
youngsters, Wentz said, Butler informed her that DCFS had received a drug-abuse
allegation against her.
Butler ordered that Ashley be removed from Wentz's home and sent to her
father's until the charge was investigated. Butler also told Wentz she could be
prevented from visiting with any of her children unless she voluntarily gave up
parental custody of the three youngest so they could be adopted.
"I never, ever, ever had a client who was given such a terrible time by a
social worker," said Nancy Lee Braham, a longtime alcohol- and drug-abuse
counselor referred by DCFS to work with Wentz.
"I don't remember any time I felt this frightened for a client."
Terrified of losing her entire family, Wentz said, she signed away her parental
Just days later, the drug allegation vanished. Butler told Wentz that Ashley
could return home. DCFS officials said last week they know of no evidence that
Wentz was coerced into surrendering custody of her children.
Jacqueline Lockett said she complained to DCFS officials about Butler as well.
But Lockett's efforts to get herself a more helpful social worker went nowhere.
In July 2001, Lockett was on the verge of getting her 7-year-old son back from
foster care. Records show her social worker had noted a "complete turnaround,"
believed that Lockett had control of her drinking problem and was just about
ready to be reunited with her child.
But when the social worker left DCFS for another job, Lockett's case was
transferred to Butler. It has been downhill ever since.
"She was relentless in her pursuit to depict me as she wanted," Lockett said.
"As a mess."
Records show Butler tried to permanently remove Lockett's son, saying among
other things that she had failed to address her parenting limitations -- even
though the mother had completed the recommended parent ing classes with high
And three years ago, Lockett said, Butler told her she asked the Cuyahoga
Metropolitan Housing Authority to investigate Lockett for fraud in getting a
rent- subsidized apartment.
Lockett got a letter soon after saying she was under investiga tion, but said
she heard noth ing more from CMHA. She has been living in the same apart ment
Lockett complained about Butler's tactics. Her request for a new social worker
finally reached DCFS upper manage ment two months ago.
On Nov. 17, a week before they suspended Butler, DCFS manag ers wrote to
Lockett with the results of their investigation. "It is imperative," they
wrote, "that you continue to work with your so cial worker, Donna Butler."
To reach this Plain Dealer re porter:
© 2005 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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The director of the agency would have people
believe there are checks and balances.
Apparently the only checks and balances
included the Plain Dealer, cited by the
worker herself as the thing that made the
agency fire her.
What OTHER checks and balances was
this director talking about?
Politicians saying they can't interfere
with the judicial process?
Other organs of the STATE itself, with
a giant Conflict Of Interest?
Where's the Checks and Balances this
state director referred to?