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Concerns surrounding the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families have settled down since the agency received full licensure in November, but continued improvement could depend heavily on state budget negotiations.

After four consecutive provisional licenses, the local child welfare agency was one  failed inspection away from having its day-to day operations taken over  by the state Department of Human Services.

As the department detailed in its November report awarding the agency a full license, state officials were satisfied that York CYF had taken the necessary steps to correct deficiencies and thrive in the future.

Part of the agency's plans, though, including a request  to add 37 more employees over the next two years, still needs to be approved, and predominantly funded, by the state.

CYF director Terry Clark detailed this request to county commissioners in August when the agency submitted its need-based budget plan in excess of $52.5 million for July 2017 through June 2018.

Clark told commissioners that the additional employee requests were the result of a detailed look at the agency's current and future needs, emphasizing that the request exemplifies what they need, not just what they want.

High staff turnover, which is common among child-welfare agencies, leads to constant vacancies and inexperienced caseworkers still in training, which leads to higher workloads for trained caseworkers, which ultimately leads to more turnover, Clark explained.

Exacerbating the problem: The state's rewritten laws — which took effect at the beginning of 2015 and redefined child abuse, expanded the list of mandatory reporters and streamlined the reporting process, among other changes — led to a dramatic bump in referrals.

Clark, who has served as the agency's director since April 2015, said he thinks he remembers maybe one full day where they were operating without vacancies.

"I remember hearing over the intercom that we were operating at full staff," Clark said, "and the next day, we received three resignations."

Clark said a well-regarded national child welfare organization suggests agencies employ a ratio of 12 active cases per caseworker, but his agency's caseworkers have as many as 30 cases at a time, which is the maximum allowed under state law.

That number might even understate the issue, as Clark said the state doesn't specify whether a case means one child or one family, which means a caseworker could be working on cases involving 30 multi-child families.

County commissioners did approve the agency's hiring of seven additional employees without state approval in July, meaning the county is currently on the hook for 100 percent of those salaries, which add up to slightly more than $100,000, according to Meredith Schreffler, fiscal officer for CYF.

If the state approves those positions, DHS will reimburse the county for about 80 percent of those costs, Schreffler noted.

The number of additional positions DHS approves will be dependent on budget negotiations, which begin this week in Harrisburg.

Gov. Tom Wolf introduced his budget proposal two weeks ago, and it includes a nearly $4.4 million, or 4 percent, increase in funding to county child-welfare agencies, according to his line-item appropriations.

Clark said he and other agencies around the state are still waiting to receive tentative allocations based on Wolf's proposal, which could be completely different from final allocations based on negotiations with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

DHS also could look completely different next year, as Wolf's budget proposal includes consolidating the department with the departments of Health, Aging and Drug and Alcohol Programs into one Department of Health and Human Services.

Clark said budgeting for CYF agencies is difficult because of the needs-based budget process, which requires counties to submit their budgets one year in advance and include three fiscal years.

For example, York County was required to submit its 2017-18 fiscal year budget by Aug. 15, 2016, and include its actual expenditures for 2015-16 and proposed changes to its current 2016-17 fiscal year budget.

Rachel Kostelac, a spokeswoman for DHS, wrote in an email that the department is  convening a work group to discuss potential changes or reforms to the process.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.

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