With 10-year high in staff vacancies, York County's child welfare agency counts on changes to turn tide

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale held a news conference to discuss an audit of the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families and announce a special report into county child-welfare agencies on Thursday, March 2 in the Capitol. (Photo by David Weissman)

At least in terms of staffing, York County’s Office of Children, Youth and Families is worse off now than it was two years ago, when it narrowly averted a state takeover.

But increased funding from the state and county as well as a new, independent hiring process has director Terry Clark optimistic the office can whittle down the number of vacant caseworker positions, which at 25 is the largest it has been in at least 10 years.

The county may need to act quickly, as the Department of Human Services this summer will propose a new regulation to reduce the maximum caseload for caseworkers from 30 cases to 10.

That was one of the 29 recommendations in state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s sweeping State of the Child report last May. Otherwise, the DHS said it has started work on "many" of the recommendations, but little has come to fruition.

More:Auditor general action plan resonates with York County child welfare specialists

More:York CYF granted more positions, but vacancies persist

More:State: York CYF made mistakes before 3-year-old girl killed in murder-suicide

Caseload problem: The caseload limit reduction "would make it harder," if not impossible, for caseworkers to handle the number of cases and stay within the limit given the number of vacancies, Clark said. Caseworkers often handle up to 30 cases.

But the move also is expected to help retain employees, and since caseloads and retention are often directly correlated, he said he hopes to see the numbers balance out as staffing levels increase and stabilize because of more reasonable caseloads.

Overall, Clark said he's "happy with what's been done so far," but the agency still is far from its ideal goal, which would entail full state funding, little-to-no vacancies and more manageable caseloads — which Clark and other officials can't put a time frame on.

For now, problems highlighted by the 2016 Department of Human Services statistics that prompted DePasquale's audit and were described by him as "appalling," are still prominent.

In 2016, York County had six fatal child-abuse cases — 13 percent of the state's total 46 fatalities, according to the DHS' most recent statistics. The county had two near fatalities in child-abuse cases that year.

York County also saw an employee turnover rate of roughly 90 percent in 2017, which Clark said has "slowed down" with retention efforts.

But caseworkers are as busy as ever.

Terry Clark, Administrator at York Count Office of Children speaks during the Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative at the York County Children's Advocacy Center, Wednesday, August 29, 2018.  John A. Pavoncello photo

In 2018, the agency averaged 1,169 calls per month. Of those, an average of 415 per month resulted in investigations or assessments.

The most recent staffing statistics show there are 67 caseworkers employed out of 92 budgeted positions, which on average juggled 1,122 cases in a given month, sometimes with help from supervisors and social service aides.

If evenly distributed, each caseworker would be handling roughly 17 cases at a time. But the cases are disproportionately assigned to caseworkers depending on the category they fall under:

  • Intake, where investigators initially respond to a referral
  • In-home, where investigators decide there's a reason to get involved but try to keep the family together
  • Placement, where a child is taken away and placed with a relative or other entity.

More:York County CYF will hold recruiting session to hire more caseworkers

System switch problems: Last year's staffing levels also took a hit in April, when the state transitioned to NeoGov, a software program meant to streamline applicant tracking that instead caused two issues.

The state stopped populating the civil service employment list — from which counties hire — in January before the switch and then purged the list entirely on April 23, making counties wait for the list to be repopulated.

The state released the county from its contract with the State Civil Service Commission, which oversaw NeoGov, Thursday, Dec. 20, but Clark said but the effects are still lingering.

Although York County’s CYF office averages nine to 10 caseworker vacancies every month, around the time of the transition, the number was as high as 29, which Clark called "drastic."

Even before the switch, York County had been trying to remove itself from the state's civil service system for more than two years because it slows the hiring process, county Commissioner Chris Reilly said.

During that time, CYF also  was on the verge of being taken over by the DHS — although it had less than half the vacancies it has now — after receiving its fourth consecutive provisional license as a result of failed inspections mostly because of clerical errors. 

One more negative inspection would have placed York County's office under state control, but it received a full license in November 2016 and has maintained the license since.

DHS inspections: The DHS inspects agencies annually, and while inspection notes have demonstrated improvements at the agency, they also document various slip-ups.

For example, in the office's most recent inspection in July, the DHS discovered several infractions. In one case, a preliminary safety assessment for a child wasn't conducted within the mandatory 72-hour time frame. 

In another case, a child was placed in medical treatment without signed consent from his or her parents.

But the county is optimistic problems will be mitigated now that it can independently hire for jobs such as caseworkers to adequately staff positions.

"There will be no waiting for lists from Civil Service or having to send candidates to Harrisburg for an exam," county spokesman Mark Walters said. "All the recruitment and testing will be done in York County. We can hire as quickly as we can once we identify a qualified candidate."

Clark echoed Walters, adding "we're very excited about"  the ability to hire independently.

The county plans to advertise positions online through websites such as Indeed or Monster. It also will put ads in newspapers and hold job fairs at local universities and other spaces, methods that couldn't be used with the state system, Clark said.

The process will expedite compiling, interviewing and hiring candidates, Walters said. If someone is deemed qualified based on their application, they will take a test related to their desired position. If they pass, they could be offered a job on the spot.

President Commissioner Susan Byrnes turns to applaud Terry Clark, director of York County Office of Children, Youth and Families, at a press conference announcing the office receiving its full license. (Photo by David Weissman/ The York Dispatch)

Boosting retention: The agency also hopes to boost retention by holding information sessions — some of which have already been held — to better educate those who may want to get involved in the field, Clark said.

More:York County CYF will hold recruiting session to hire more caseworkers

Additionally, the office dedicated full-time staff positions to training new employees and mentoring new caseworkers, along with holding meetings solely focusing on policies and procedures to improve retention, he said.

The director acknowledged the job is "stressful and overwhelming," but he said he's confident these measures can continue to have a positive impact.

“We want to be able to retain the staff that we’re able to recruit," Clark said. "We're setting up an environment where (employees) think they're well prepared and supported to do this type of work."

As the county hopes for more employees to flow in, state funding — which accounts for roughly 80 percent of total CYF funding — is already on the rise. But the county's funding hasn't followed the trend.

The state's funding of all county agencies increased from $1.11 billion to $1.18 billion between 2017 and 2018 — a 6.21 percent increase. York County CYF received $44.9 million of the pot, a 12.7 percent increase from the $39.8 million allocated the previous fiscal year.

However, the county put up $10.93 million in its own funding for CYF, a 12.4 percent decrease from the $12.38 million allocated from the county in 2017.

The state funding increased again in the most recent fiscal year from $1.18 billion to $1.21 billion — another roughly 3 percent increase. York County CYF received $47.93 million from that, a 6.8 percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

The county's funding for CYF once again decreased to $10.34 million, a 5.4 percent decrease from the previous fiscal year.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.