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York County Office of Children, Youth and Families Director Terry Clark speaks about the effects of the state's switch to NeoGov, a civil service applicant tracking software, on staffing at the agency. Logan Hullinger, 717-505-5439/@LoganHullYD

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Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has released another audit of the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families — but this time he praised what he acknowledged had been a "struggling" agency.

DePasquale held a news conference alongside CYF Director Terry Clark at the state Capitol Thursday, Jan. 31, to review the audit and announce his plans to follow up on his State of the Child reports.

The state's top fiscal watchdog said the agency "was struggling, to say the least" after a 2017 audit, which covered fiscal years 2010-2014.

The new report, for 2014-2017, covers a time when York County's CYF was dealing with a string of provisional licenses and staffing issues, but it shows improvement nevertheless, DePasquale said.

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

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More: Lawsuit: York CYF placed boy in foster care with known pedophile

"I'm pleased to say that under the leadership of Terry Clark, the agency has made a host of corrective actions that have led to better protection of the county's children, youth and families," he said. 

York CYF audit: The 2017 audit showed significant staffing shortages hindered the agency's functions, and abuse allegations had  increased following the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal that broke in 2011.

Problems during the time period of the audit led to CYF almost being taken over by the Department of Human Services after receiving its fourth consecutive provisional license in a two-year period as a result of failed inspections.

With one more chance, the agency received a full license in November 2016 and still has one today, which DePasquale noted Thursday.

While still not without its problems, the auditor general said, the agency is in a much better position, specifically recognizing staffing improvements that have allowed the agency to improve its functionality.

Most recently, numbers provided to The York Dispatch following a November 2018 Right-to-Know law request showed there were 25 vacant caseworker positions — a 10-year high.

However, in the last three months, the agency has reduced its vacancies to just five.

The vacancies were partially caused by the state's transition last year to NeoGov, a software program meant to streamline applicant tracking that instead hindered the agency's ability to hire.

The state first stopped populating the civil service employment lists from which counties hire in January 2018 before the switch. It then purged the lists entirely on April 23, 2018, when the new system went online, making counties wait for the list to be repopulated.

DePasquale wouldn't comment on the state's decision but emphasized the vacancies that followed were "too high." Clark has largely attributed the dip in staffing last year to the switch.

Hiring improvements: The state has since released the county from its contract with the State Civil Service Commission, which oversees NeoGov. The county will begin its own merit-based hiring beginning Friday, Feb. 1 — a move predicted by county officials to relieve hiring troubles.

Clark said the agency still "has a long way to go" but cited recent efforts to bring in new hires and retain employees with methods such as information sessions and meetings with caseworkers to improve communication.

"This is important to us," he said. "If we want to see children be protected and receive the types of services that families feel like they need, the only way to do that is have caseworkers who are prepared and ready to do this job."

The audit also notes another improvement concerning CYF's decision in May 2018 to re-implement a process to review all invoices prior to payment to avoid over or under-billing. 

The agency's fiscal monitoring process was criticized by DePasquale in his last audit, a problem that was amplified once the agency discontinued monitoring the finances of its contracted in-home providers in 2014. 

The move put the agency at risk of failing to detect fraudulent billings submitted by providers and improper payments for such invoices, which would then be wrongly billed to the DHS.

DePasquale's 2017 audit showed the agency incorrectly billed the department roughly $580,000, most of which came from filings for the payment of health benefits for retired employees.

Investigation into agency: Also citing strides to improve child welfare services statewide, DePasquale announced he'd be following up his annual State of the Child reports by investigating the DHS-run Bureau of Hearings and Appeals.

The bureau, functioning as an administrative court, covers roughly 280 different areas of law including the expungement of child abuse cases, appeals and more, according to the DHS website.

Specifically, the auditor general said he was concerned with the bureau's handling of child-abuse appeals, which come from individuals who fight allegations of child abuse made by child welfare agencies.

The court sees roughly 1,000 child abuse cases annually, and it only supports the agencies 4 percent of the time, DePasquale said. Cases don't often go beyond such hearings.

"There's no way that is the most effective way to make sure our children are being protected," DePasquale said. "It's a shadow justice system out of the light of the public and in many respects out of the light of accountability."

The special report will aim to find out who serves at the bureau, how well they are trained, what the appeal process is like and whether or not the DHS is providing sufficient oversight over the entity, DePasquale said.

Clark echoed the auditor general's concern, adding that in York County roughly 60 percent of cases involving an individual appealing allegations are overturned.

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

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