Report: Pennsylvania child abuse workers swamped, underpaid

The Associated Press
In this file photo, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale meets with The York Dispatch editorial board at the Dispatch offices in West Manchester Township on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. (Dawn J. Sagert -

HARRISBURG — The county caseworkers who investigate child abuse in Pennsylvania are underpaid, inadequately trained, plagued by high turnover and face dangerous conditions, according to a report released Thursday that recommended changes to the system.

The auditor general office's "State of the Child" study described the state child welfare system as swamped by a flood of new complaints and more demanding reporting rules generated by the Jerry Sandusky and clergy child sexual abuse scandals.

"The system itself is setting the kids and the caseworkers up for failure," said Democratic Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

He said 46 children died and 79 nearly died in the state last year, while spending on child protection was nearly $2 billion.

York County: York County's Office of Children, Youth and Families was one of 13 county agencies assessed for this report.

The agency has been under scrutiny since 2014, when it was issued the first of what would be four consecutive provisional licenses. It was one failed inspection from having its day-to-day operations taken over by the state before successfully receiving its full license during October 2016.

The agency's full license was just renewed for a one-year period on Tuesday, Sept. 12, according to the DHS website.

York CYF has faced many of the issues outlines in DePasquale's report including high staff turnover and frequent vacancies.

Agency director Terry Clark is quoted in the report discussing the difficulties with trying retain staff.

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

More: Child abuse reports continue rising in York County

More: Faces of child abuse in York County

“I don’t know which comes first: getting the caseload sizes down or getting the right amount of staff," Clark said in the report. "But we can’t decrease the caseload sizes because people keep leaving.”

Clark said in a statement that caseworkers shouldn't have more than 5-10 cases at any given time "in order to adequately assess and effectively work with the families who come to our attention in this day and age."

He has previously told The York Dispatch that his agency's caseworkers have as many as 30 cases at a time, which is the maximum allowed under state law.

"York County CYF has been making every effort to reduce caseload sizes by requesting additional casework positions from the state and by looking at more diversionary programs on the front end to that families have choices and opportunities related to services that can support them without child welfare's involvement," Clark said in his statement.

The state approved 22 additional positions in March, through the agency requested 37. Clark and fiscal officer Meredith Schreffler recently appeared at a county commissioners meeting to ratify its submission to DHS for a budget of nearly $59.5 million during 2018-2019. That's up from the $50 million budget it submitted to DHS for 2016-2017.

Schreffler explained that the agency's request included an additional 30 positions as well as salary increases and more employee training.

Proposals: The state's Department of Human Services should establish an independent ombudsman position to advocate for at-risk children, DePasquale said. An agency spokeswoman said it would consider the idea.

DePasquale also proposed improvements to training, reductions in paperwork and ways to put more caseworkers in the field.

He said paperwork rules imposed under new state laws mean caseworkers sometimes spend hours documenting short home visits, and that pressures of the job have caused many to leave.

"Overregulation and a shortage of critical resources have resulted in kids being left in situations that led to their deaths," DePasquale said. "It's that simple."

The number of abuse reports in 13 counties sampled for the study increased anywhere from 17 to 78 percent between 2014 and 2016.

The average starting salary among those counties for a caseworker — often a recent college graduate — was barely $30,000. Some caseworkers make so little they have enrolled in the food stamps program, according to the study.

But DePasquale said more money alone won't solve the systemic problems, noting that chronic turnover in a county near Harrisburg continued even after officials boosted caseworker pay.

In the counties studied, turnover ranged from 10 to 33 percent over a recent one-year period.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania agrees with most of the report's findings, said the organization's executive director, Doug Hill.

"Responsibility for low pay isn't solely on the commissioners," Hill said. "It ties back as well to consistent underfunding of the system. We do have counties that are trying to better reflect the marketplace, but it's not easily done."

Safety: The report also said individual caseworkers expressed safety concerns, reporting one having been "held hostage" in a home, another having had things thrown at them and a third describing some home visits as terrifying.

The study suggested officials reconsider using the state civil service system to hire caseworkers and supervisors, and revamp training on how to deal with hostile people, personal safety methods, identification of substance abuse and other topics.

Human Services spokeswoman Kait Gillis said the state agency supports many of the suggested changes, and is currently taking steps to address caseloads and training.

"Today's report highlights the critical nature of the work the staff do every day and the challenges they face," Gillis said. "It underscores the need for human services systems to work collectively as a group to support safe and healthy children and families."

— Staff reporter David Weissman contributed to this report.