WILKES-BARRE — Tony Bellizia will never forget the day.
Bellizia has been a caseworker at Luzerne County Child and Youth Services on Pennsylvania Avenue for nearly two years.
In August of 2016, Bellizia and a co-worker went to a home in Wilkes-Barre to remove two young children because the father was using drugs.
Bellizia and his co-worker were armed with a court order from a county judge to give them the authority to remove the children from the father’s care.
The father, seated on the front porch, was armed with a gun, and he told Bellizia he was not giving up his children.
As Bellizia told the story Tuesday at a special hearing before Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, you could hear a pin drop in the room filled with elected officials, law enforcement personnel and Children and Youth workers.
Luzerne County was the first stop for DePasquale, who will hold similar hearings across the state to try to fix what he has called “a broken child welfare system.” On Sept. 14, DePasquale released a comprehensive 80-page report — “State of the Child” — that assesses the strengths and challenges of Pennsylvania’s child-welfare system. Specifically, it focuses on county CYS caseworkers, who are on the front lines of working with children and their families.
“What I found for my ‘State of the Child’ report is appalling,” DePasquale said. “I’m talking about wholesale system breakdowns that actually prevent CYS caseworkers from protecting our children from abuse and neglect.”
Bellizia said his harrowing experience happened just one month after he attended a training session that specifically addressed what to do if a weapon is visible during a visit.
“We were told to leave immediately,” Bellizia said. “We were met by the father’s brother who warned us of his brother’s anger.”
Bellizia said he and his co-worker returned to their vehicle and called 911. He said the father was later apprehended by police and the situation was calmed. Bellizia said he still has the family on his caseload.
“Yes, I feel lucky,” he said. “This is still an open case.”
The Auditor General’s “State of the Child” report heavily blames the continued death of children on difficulties recruiting qualified professionals, inadequate training, heavy caseloads and burdensome paperwork, low pay and high turnover rates — all issues that were discussed Tuesday and are present in Luzerne County.
David Pedri, Luzerne County manager, said the county currently has 23 vacant caseworker positions — down from 46 open spots just over one year ago. He said the average caseload per caseworker is as many as 30 per month, much higher than the “ideal caseload” of 10 to 12 per month.
Pedri said the positions are budgeted, but he said it’s a challenge to find qualified candidates willing to accept positions that start at $29,371 per year for entry-level caseworker I positions — caseworker II jobs requiring less supervision and training begin at $31,764 annually. The union contract covering caseworkers expires at the end of this year, Pedri said.
Corrine Carper, a county caseworker, said her job is like that of a detective — to find out what is going on in a home on a daily basis.
“We really never know what we’re walking into,” she said. “We don’t know what’s been going on behind that door.”
DePasquale began the session by citing Cambria County, where he said 40 percent of all children there are in the county Children and Youth system.
“That’s a jaw-dropping statistic,” he said. “This is happening in the shadows of our society. We don’t see what’s in front of us. This will take a statewide fix.”
In his report, DePasquale found that in 2016, 46 children died and 79 nearly died in Pennsylvania from abuse and neglect. Of those 125 children, nearly half of their families were already in the child-welfare system.
“Pennsylvania’s child-welfare system is broken,” he said. “This is not hyperbole or exaggeration.”
DePasquale said in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child-sex-abuse scandal in 2011, state legislators tried to better protect children by passing 24 pieces of legislation amending the Child Protective Services Law. But, he said, they did not provide additional resources to implement those sweeping changes.
At the same time, DePasquale said the use of opioids began to sky-rocket, creating even more dangerous situations for children — and therefore more work for children and youth caseworkers.
Although a year-long review found passionate, dedicated professionals doing great work, DePasquale said it also found an extremely problematic system with deficiencies that put children’s lives at risk. The premise of his report is that assessing caseworkers’ ability to do their jobs effectively provides a basis for determining whether Pennsylvania’s children can be kept safe.
State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, chairs the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee. She said she will look into what changes might be needed to the state’s Civil Service Commission.
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said caseworkers have one of the most dangerous jobs and the pay is very low. She said applicants for the positions often are not aware of what they may encounter on the job.
Hazleton Police Chief Jerry Speziale said domestic violence calls top the list in the city and most are drug or alcohol related. He said the recent opioid crisis has been the “main driver” in those calls.
Pedri closed the meeting by recalling the March 6 incident at the county Children and Youth offices when someone threw a “fire bomb” into the office of Executive Director Joanne Van Saun.
“We had a fire-bombing here and not one child lost service for that day,” Pedri said. “All services were coordinated in the parking lot by our dedicated staff.”
The county Children and Youth budget is $48 million, Pedri said, with 80 percent provided by state and federal funds and 20 percent by the county.
DePasquale said he has offered 17 changes to the system, including the establishment of a child protection ombudsman to advocate for at-risk children. He also recommended revamping requisite training, reducing paperwork and utilizing new technology to allow for more time in the field for caseworkers.