EDITORIAL: Ombudsman fine, funding child welfare better

York Dispatch
In this file photo, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale outlines the findings of an audit of the York City School District, Thursday, April 20, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

Pennsylvania’s child welfare system is broken.

That was the finding of Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, whose “State of the Child” report was released last week.

And it confirms what we in York County already knew.

The yearlong audit described a system overwhelmed by new state laws — prompted by the Jerry Sandusky and clergy sex abuse scandals — that led to a spike in child abuse reports.

But remember: The spike wasn’t unexpected.

It was intended, and rightly so.

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Sandusky was convicted of abusing 10 boys for more than 15 years, sometimes under the nose of Penn State officials.

Prosecutors also alleged three university leaders could have done more to stop him.

Former Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment charges in March and testified against former president Graham Spanier, who was convicted of one count of child endangerment.

Never again, we all said as the horrible details were revealed.

Unfortunately, the Legislature’s well-intentioned attempt to prevent a similar tragedy didn’t include more funding for the expanded effort.

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

In the first year of the new laws, the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families saw a nearly 86 percent increase in referrals, or 2,237 new cases.

The agency didn’t handle the increase well. In 2014 York County’s CYF received the first of what would be four consecutive provisional licenses.  

Only last year did it regain a full license, heading off a potential state takeover.

A big part of the problem in York County has been a high turnover rate among child welfare workers, an issue noted in the auditor general’s report, along with low pay, inadequate training and dangerous work conditions.

Among DePasquale’s not-unexpected recommendations — such as better training and less paperwork for child welfare workers — is the creation of an independent ombudsman position to advocate for at-risk children.

That’s worth a try, but a new public watchdog — who probably will make the same findings and recommendations we’re already hearing — isn’t likely to fix the problem alone.

We need the Legislature to finally put its money where its mouth is and properly fund child welfare in Pennsylvania.

Editor's note: This editorial was corrected to note Schultz and Curley pleaded guilty to child endangerment. Only Spanier took his case to trial.