EDITORIAL: Lawmakers, you have action plan. Now act
Stress fractures have been showing in Pennsylvania’s child-welfare system since 2015, when the Legislature’s overhaul of child protection laws fully took effect.
They appeared in York County with a series of consecutive provisional licenses for the local Office of Children, Youth and Families, which came precariously close to a state takeover in 2016.
Like others across Pennsylvania, the agency struggled with a spike in child abuse reports, high staff turnover and inadequate funding.
In fact, funding topped the list of problems cited by stakeholders that year, and it remains an issue today.
It’s maddening because lawmakers almost had to willfully ignore the costs associated with such sweeping reforms.
These bills were designed to significantly boost the number of reported cases of suspected child abuse — for example, by expanding mandatory reporting and increasing the penalties for those who fail to act on that duty.
Yet lawmakers failed to significantly boost funding to pay for the people who would have to investigate those reports.
In the case of the mandatory reporting bill, the Appropriation Committees in both chambers said there wouldn't be any additional cost related to increased calls to the state's child abuse hotline.
Fiscal notes, which lay out the projected costs of implementing legislation, said at the time there should be no "increase in ChildLine calls that can't be absorbed within current funding."
In 2015, calls to the state's child abuse hotline increased 14 percent, yet 22 percent of all calls went unanswered and numerous others weren't monitored by a supervisor or didn't generate reports.
That was according to a summer 2016 report released by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who said lawmakers’ failure to boost funding when they expanded child abuse laws represents “a disturbing failure” that’s putting lives at risk.
Flash forward two years, and funding is still an issue, the fiscal watchdog said in his State of the Child Action Report, which was released earlier this month.
The 46-page report contains 28 recommendations to fix “the problems (state government) helped create within the child welfare system,” and some will require more money.
Since the General Assembly has had years to adequately fund child protection in Pennsylvania, we’re not sure even this thorough and thoughtful report will prompt a dramatic about-face there.
However, most of the recommendations do not require additional money, according to the auditor general, and there will be no excuse if lawmakers fail to act on them right away.
Why not allow county CYF offices to determine how best to spend state funding?
Why not make changes that cut down on the excessive paperwork that can drown already overloaded caseworkers?
And why not have CYF workers, rather than “lesser-trained” ChildLine workers, determine the severity of and designation of incoming child abuse reports?
Yes, some of these are no-brainers.
But — just in case — DePasquale has helpfully added icons to certain recommendations to designate a “commonsense measure.”
He's added a different icon for recommendations that are cost-neutral, another for those that will require more funds, and yet another for recommendations that are also tied to the opioid epidemic.
Come on, lawmakers.
The problems are well-established, and you now have a road map to fix them. The report is practically a "Lawmaking for Dummies" manual.
The time to act is now — before the cracks in the system become canyons.