Child welfare offices to get less funding than budget suggests

Greg Gross
  • The proposed state budget includes a $196 million increase to county Children, Youth and Families
  • But that increase includes $172.7 million to cover the previous fiscal year's payment
  • That leaves a true increase of roughly $24 million

State funding earmarked for county-operated child protection agencies in Pennsylvania is far less than what is laid out in the state budget awaiting Gov. Tom Wolf's signature.

The county child welfare line item under the Department of Human Services section of the budget lists a funding increase of just less than $197 million for county Children, Youth and Families offices across the state.

But what the budget doesn't show is that a large portion of that purported increase is to cover payments the state did not make to CFY offices during the last fiscal year.

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"It's not new money,"  said York County President Commissioner Susan Byrnes. "The state pushed back making its fourth-quarter payments."

Of the nearly $197 million in "new" funding, about $172.7 million is to cover the fourth-quarter payments, said Kait Gillis, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services.

That leaves a true increase of about $24 million for CYF offices across the state.

York County President Commissioner Susan Byrnes. Bill Kalina photo

Lawmakers used the same tactic — rolling the previous fiscal year's fourth-quarter payments to counties into the new budget — last year.

Troubles: The overall DHS budget is expected to increase about 4 percent, from $11.51 billion to nearly $11.98 billion, according to budget documents.

The increase comes at a time when the state and local child protection agencies are experiencing a historic influx in the number of suspected child-abuse cases following the enactment of laws aimed at better protecting children.

York County to pay $10K a month for CYF consulting

The changes redefined child abuse, expanded the list of mandatory reporters and streamlined the reporting process, among other updates. The far-reaching rewrite of Pennsylvania's child protection laws took effect in 2015. The changes led to a dramatic increase in referrals.

From January through May of this year, York County's CYF received 2,051 referrals, compared to 1,138 it received during the same five months in 2014. In the first five months of 2015, the number of referrals was 1,851.

Terry Clark, head of the county agency, said he won't know how much of the $24 million increase will come to York County until after the budget becomes law.

Terry Clark, director of York County's Office of Children, Youth and Families.

The agency is expecting to receive $32.5 million in state funds this fiscal year, up slightly from the $31.3 million it got in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Clark's agency has been working under a downgraded provisional license for more than a year after deficiencies were found by state inspectors. It is now on its fourth provisional license and has until Nov. 15 to get its full license back. If it fails to do so, the state will take over the agency's day-to-day operations.

To help right the ship, county commissioners this week approved the hiring of  Bev Mackereth, the former head of the state Department of Welfare, now DHS, at the cost of $10,000 a month. She will provide consulting services.

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ChildLine: The DHS budget also includes a $1.8 million funding increase for its child-abuse reporting hotline, ChildLine, Gillis said.

"Fortunately there is money in there to increase the funding to ChildLine," she said.

Department Secretary Ted Dallas requested the added funds after a damning report earlier this year by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale found that 42,000 calls — 22 percent — to the hotline went unanswered in 2015. Calls deemed unanswered are those in which a caller never speaks to a ChildLine agent, either because the caller hangs up before the call is answered or the system's hold queue is too full and automatically disconnects the call. The number of unanswered calls has since decreased to 12 percent.

"We've made a lot of progress, but obviously one dropped call is too many," Gillis said.

Wolf, a Democrat from York County, has until July 11 to sign or veto the $31.5 billion spending plan. If he does nothing, the budget automatically becomes law.

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