Last year, 46 children died and 79 nearly died from abuse/neglect in Pennsylvania, and nearly half of their families were already in the child-welfare system, according to a new state Auditor General’s Office report.
This “State of the Child” report, posted at www.paauditor.gov, 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.
“The system is broken. And Pennsylvania’s at-risk children are not safe,” said state Auditor General Eugene A. DePasquale, who is scheduled to visit Luzerne County Children and Youth on Tuesday as part of his ongoing examination of problems with the state’s child-welfare system.
In Luzerne County, one child died and one nearly died due to abuse and neglect in 2016, his office said.
The near fatality involved a 3-year-old girl, who almost died March 9 as a result of serious physical neglect, according to the state human services department, which must investigate circumstances surrounding child fatalities and near deaths that may involve abuse.
The department releases quarterly summaries of substantiated cases at www.dhs.pa.gov. In the case of the 3-year-old, it said:
The child suffered a skull fracture and cuts on her forehead, abdomen and hip as a result of falling 6 feet out a window onto a concrete sidewalk.
Children and Youth named the child’s mother and father as the perpetrators. The investigation concluded both parents observed the child near the window but failed to take action to remove the child.
The girl was flown to a local hospital and discharged March 10. She and four other siblings were placed together in foster care.
The county agency was previously involved with the family due to an April 2015 referral regarding allegations of truancy, inadequate shelter and drug abuse. This referral was assessed and closed at intake.
After the March 9 incident, the parents were referred for mental health services and parenting education. The family subsequently relocated to Northumberland County, which assumed jurisdiction. No charges have been filed.
The fatality involved a 1-week-old girl around November 2016, but a quarterly summary of that case has not yet been posted on the state site.
Luzerne County Children and Youth Director Joanne Van Saun was among several participating county administrators quoted in the state report, discussing the need for significant staff salary increases and more practical training in the state’s curriculum for caseworkers.
Entry-level caseworker I positions start at $29,371 annually in the county, while 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.
A revamping of the system is needed, DePasquale said.
“We spent nearly $2 billion in 2016, yet 46 children died and 79 nearly died from abuse that year,” he said.
The state’s child-welfare system had been struggling to retain workers and keep up with the demand of helping children and families for years, his report found.
Problems escalated in 2015, following the Jerry Sandusky child-sex-abuse scandal, when legislators expanded both the definition of child abuse and the parties mandated to report it, he said.
As a result, county Children and Youth agencies were inundated with cases to investigate, forcing many intake caseworkers who make the initial contact with families to be saddled with too many cases.
In Luzerne County, the number of reports processed by Children and Youth increased from 2,819 in 2015 to 3,837 in 2016, according to the state.
Many county agencies have been forced to rely heavily on less experienced caseworkers who lack “real-world” experience with situations they must encounter as they must make “life-changing decisions for the most vulnerable among us,” he said. Additional paperwork requirements cut into time assessing at-risk children, DePasquale noted.
Add the opioid epidemic to the mix, and agencies were left with an “unstable system,” he said.
“Overregulation and a shortage of critical resources have resulted in kids being left in situations that led to their deaths. It’s that simple.”
DePasquale recommends creating an independent child protection ombudsman position to advocate for the state’s at-risk children, overhauling required training, reducing paperwork and exploring new technology to free up more time for caseworkers to evaluate families.
Luzerne County officials have been continuously posting caseworker vacancies at www.luzernecounty.org to stay on top of departures.
The agency would be fully staffed at 108 caseworkers and had 92 in June, officials said.
Van Saun could not be reached Thursday or Friday to provide a current count. The manager’s July personnel report indicated one caseworker was hired that month, but another resigned. The August report has not yet been posted.
Caseworker vacancies had hovered around 40 in November 2016.
Applicants must pass a state civil service exam.
The administration is studying other counties that have opted out of the state civil service system to determine if in-house applicant testing and assessment would be more efficient and speed up hiring, officials have said.
Caseworker shortages contributed to a series of Children and Youth license downgrades, officials have said. The state restored the agency to full license status in April, pointing to significant progress implementing a corrective plan.