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Like most people who go into social work, Cindy Carter wanted to make a difference when she joined York County's child-protection agency as a placement unit caseworker nearly three years ago.

But the already stressful job with Children, Youth and Families became even more so after new state child abuse reporting laws went into effect at the end of 2014 and caused a large increase in calls reporting suspected child abuse.

Child welfare workers know the stakes — and they know the laws that mandate a quick response when reports are made.

"I was experiencing stress-related illness, anxiety and sleep disturbances," she said. "If I wasn't working, I was thinking about work. Sundays were terrible because I couldn't enjoy them for dreading Monday."

There was an 86 percent increase in referrals made to the office, which is operating on its third consecutive downgraded state license, between 2014 and last year, according to information obtained by The York Dispatch through a Right to Know request filed with York County. The office requested additional funding and hired more workers to fix the deficiencies cited in state inspections.

Terry Clark, the executive director of the county office, declined requests for interviews and referred questions to Carl Lindquist, the county spokesman.

York County isn't alone — other child welfare agencies, including the state Department of Human Services, struggled when the new child abuse reporting laws went into effect. State officials now acknowledge they were unprepared for the dramatic increase in reports, and lawmakers didn't provide adequate funding when they passed the laws.

Calls: When someone calls ChildLine, the state child abuse reporting hotline, or the county office directly to report suspected abuse, the call is screened by a call taker.

If the referral is deemed legitimate, it's passed on to an intake caseworker, who has 24 hours to start an investigation. From there, the case remains in the intake unit for a maximum of 60 days. After that it is either closed or sent to another unit, and a service plan for the child and family is put in place.

Calls to the county's office jumped 74 percent between 2005, when 2,800 referrals were made, and last year, when 4,842 cases were referred. But the largest year-to-year increase happened between 2014, when 2,605 referrals were made, and last year, when the new state laws were in place, according to information obtained through the Right to Know request.

"I think we recognized there would be an increased workload ... but the increase exceeded expectations," Lindquist said. "As more calls come in, there's an initial influx of demand on the staff."

Funding levels, however, didn't keep pace with the sudden increase, and staffing levels remained stagnant at 152 employees from 2013 to last year. Lindquist said the office now has 160 employees, its full complement of staff.

For the 2014-15 fiscal year, state Act 148 funding, the primary source of state money, accounted for $28.3 million of the office's $45.1 million budget. State funding increased only slightly in 2015-16 to $28.4 million, while the office's overall budget dropped to $44 million, according to the office's budget.

The decrease is the result of an 8 percent drop in county funding, from $9.9 million in 2014-15 to $9.1 million in 2015-16. Since the 2011-12 fiscal year, county funding slid 18 percent from $11.3 million.

Needs-based: Part of the funding problem lies in how Children, Youth and Families budgets, which rely heavily on historical data, are worked out.

Lindquist called the way of budgeting one of the biggest challenges since it looks backward, not forward, and causes funding delays when there are immediate demands.

Tentatively, the county is expected to increase its share of funding for 2016-17 by 19 percent, taking it to $10.7 million. The state also is expected to increase its allocation to just under $29 million, for a total budget of $47.3 million.

The question is if it will be enough for the office to regain its regular license.

In April, the county's Children, Youth and Families office was issued its third consecutive provisional license, a rarity in the state, after deficiencies, many of which were clerical, were discovered during an October inspection.

An office is allowed four straight provisional licenses before the state Department of Human Services takes over day-to-day operations, leaving York County's office just two provisional periods to get its full license back.

Quality work: On top of the increase in referrals, the office, like others across the state, has been dealing with high employee turnover.

When someone leaves the office, the person hired as a replacement can't just jump right into the job. New hires have to go through four months of training before being assigned to handle a case by themselves, Lindquist said.

"It's a very intensive training process before they can go out on their own," he said.

In February, Carter's position became vacant. She handed in her county-issued badge but opted to stay in social services and now works in foster care and adoption.

Despite the heavy workload, Carter gave high praise to the workers at the office and to Clark, who started with the office last year after the first provisional license was issued.

“I think Terry Clark has been a real asset. He's extremely knowledgeable," she said. “I think everyone in Children and Youth is doing the best they can."

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @ggrossyd.

Who to call

If you suspect a child is being abused, call the state ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313 or the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families at 1-800-729-9227 or (717) 846-8496.

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