NEW YORK CITY — City officials are fighting to stop a child caseworker who they say "cannot be trusted with the welfare of at-risk children" from getting his job back — after a labor arbitrator decided to give him a second chance, according to a recent lawsuit.
Administration for Children's Services caseworker Edward Okoro was fired in March 2012 after officials found he lied about making face-to-face visits in three cases involving neglected or abused children and falsified paperwork to drum up roughly $820 in overtime, according to the city.
But in December 2014, labor arbitrator Jane Morgenstern decided Okoro deserved to be reinstated because he had a good employment record and his misconduct did not cause injury or harm to the children involved, according to the city's lawsuit, which also names Okoro's union, Social Service Employees Union Local 371.
"It's tricky, I thought about it long and hard, believe me," Morgenstern told DNAinfo on Tuesday, "and I still believe I made the right decision."
Morgenstern admitted in her decision that Okoro “engaged in transgressions that the City accurately describes as egregious misconduct” and found him guilty of a majority of the disciplinary charges brought against him.
But she said she made her decision to reinstate him because ACS officials failed to present witnesses with firsthand accounts.
"Except for one allegation that did not involve children but only adults ... all the other evidence was hearsay. The city did not present any of the firsthand witnesses who made the allegations about Okoro," Morgenstern said via phone on Tuesday.
The city disagreed, arguing that Morgenstern "acted irrationally" and exceeded her authority when she chose to reinstate Okoro, lawyers for the city wrote in a lawsuit filed March 10 in Manhattan Supreme Court.
“The arbitrator would therefore have ACS await the injury and possible death of a child before ridding itself of a [Child Protective Specialist II] who cannot be trusted with the welfare of at-risk children,” the city's lawyers wrote, adding that they want a judge to toss out her decision and allow the agency's firing to stand.
"We are seeking to vacate the arbitrator's decision to prevent this inappropriate conduct from recurring and to protect the interests of vulnerable children," Law Department spokesman Nick Paolucci told DNAinfo New York.
Okoro, a Child Protective Specialist who worked at ACS for 15 years, failed to make state-mandated face-to-face visits in three cases of children at risk and then covered it up by filing fake reports between Oct. 18 and Oct. 20, 2011, according to court documents.
Okoro falsely claimed he visited the home of a woman suspected of repeatedly abusing her 3-year-old daughter — including one incident in which she allegedly hurt the girl so badly her liver was lacerated, according to court documents.
Okoro claimed he went to the mother's apartment to determine whether the child should be discharged from a foster home back into her mother's care, but investigators later found he never made the visit, according to the lawsuit.
Okoro also lied in the case of a 2-year-old child who sustained burns on both hands while in foster care. Okoro filed a report saying he attended a family meeting at the foster care agency along with a caseworker and a therapist, but it was later found that the meeting never occurred, according to court papers.
Okoro also filed a false report describing a face-to-face meeting he had at the foster home of an infant who was placed in the care of his step-grandmother after his mother, a teenager, was suspected of inadequately supervising the baby, ACS claims in the suit.
In his report, Okoro stated that he interacted with the baby in the foster home and spoke with the foster parent about taking the child to the emergency room for eczema.
But Okoro did not visit the foster home on that day and instead called the foster parent for roughly 20 minutes, the arbitrator found, according to court papers.
Additionally, city investigators found that Okoro submitted fraudulent overtime requests for these field visits he never conducted, costing the city approximately $820, the suit claims.
Okoro was first found guilty of the disciplinary charges on February 22, 2012 and was fired from his ACS job a month later, an ACS spokesman said.
But he chose to challenge the firing and the case went to a hearing officer. About a month later, the hearing officer also concluded that Okoro should remain off the job.
The Social Service Employees Union Local 371 then decided to file a request for an arbitration with the Office of Collective Bargaining, records show.
The union declined to comment. Okoro could not be reached for comment.
ACS officials said Okoro is not currently on the job and they have no plans to reinstate him until they are forced to do so.
"The final determination on [Mr. Okoro's] reinstatement will only be made after all appeal options have been exhausted,” ACS spokesman Christopher McKniff said.