Luzerne County Children and Youth Director Joanne Van Saun said Thursday she supports and already had implemented some of the recommendations in the state auditor general’s new “State of the Child Action Plan.”
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released the plan this week as a follow to his 2017 report concluding Pennsylvania’s child welfare system is “broken.”
The plan outlines proposed state government changes and model county programs and practices that could improve conditions for caseworkers and prevent family problems from escalating to the degree that children become endangered.
“These glimmers of hope show that Pennsylvania’s child-welfare system might be broken, but it does not have to stay that way,” DePasquale said in a release about the plan, which is posted at www.paauditor.gov.
One of his recommendations was biennial advanced personal safety training for caseworkers and other frontline staff.
Van Saun said her workers benefited greatly from this type of training provided through the University of Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Child Welfare Resource Center several years ago, and she is working with area colleges and universities to replicate a similar, ongoing program here.
In this training, actors dramatize scenarios that may be encountered by caseworkers, such as adults under the influence or battling mental health issues, she said. Potentially threatening props, such as a knife on the kitchen table, are included. Caseworkers knock on a stage door to enter cold and are critiqued on how they handle situations.
“This helps the workers develop skills they need in the real world,” Van Saun said, describing family dynamics encountered today as “more complex than ever.”
The action plan also cites an example of a county that houses caseworkers in school districts to address concerns, such as truancy and children exhibiting signs of extreme poverty. This early intervention and family connection to outside resources often prevents cases from ending up in the child welfare system, the plan said.
Van Saun said her agency had staff in several school districts based on requests and referrals, but that program ended several years ago due to caseworker staffing shortages. Now that caseworker vacancies have declined, the county again has caseworkers at the Wyoming Valley West School District and will be adding staffers at other districts, she said.
The county currently has 14 caseworker vacancies, down from more than 40 when Van Saun was promoted to oversee the agency in 2016. The vacancy count has not been this low since 2007, she said.
In response to difficulty recruiting and retaining workers for the high-stress position, county officials recently boosted the starting salary for more experienced caseworkers to $36,000, an increase of $4,236, in a new union contract. Entry-level caseworker positions start at $29,371 annually.
Van Saun said her agency had been following some other action plan recommendations to maintain communication and partnerships with numerous outside entities — law enforcement agencies that may be needed to provide speedy assistance on home checks, professionals specializing in addiction and mental health issues, pediatric medical experts trained to recognize signs of abuse and organizations that provide after-school programs and other supportive family services.
The county agency receives more than 1,000 referrals per month and has retained consultant Fran Gutterman to help update protocol on screening them. Van Saun said the data revealed only a small number of the many referrals were substantiated.
“We need to better screen so our workers are not being bogged down by cases that don’t involve us,” Van Saun said. “We want to spend more of our energy doing preventative work with families that really need us.”
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.