Pa. Auditor general calls for 'Marshall Plan' to fix broken child welfare system

After a year-long look at Pennsylvania’s child-welfare system, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale Thursday concluded the system is “broken,” endangering the children it was meant to serve.

“Pennsylvania’s child welfare system is broken. This is not hyperbole or exaggeration,” DePasquale wrote in “State of the Child, a report released Thursday. “… Although a year-long review found passionate, dedicated professionals doing great work, it also found an extremely problematic system with deficiencies that put children’s lives at risk.”

The report, based on the review of 13 representative counties including Philadelphia and Bucks, also recommended more funding for training for child welfare workers and up-to-date technology to help them in their jobs.

In 2016, 46 children died in Pennsylvania from abuse and neglect. An additional 79 nearly died of the same. Of those 125 children, nearly half of their families were already in the child-welfare system. In Philadelphia, five children died and four nearly died who were active in the system.

“There is a comprehensive problem that I believe will require a Marshall Plan-like effort to address,” DePasquale said at a news conference in Harrisburg releasing the report.

DePasquale stopped short of putting a dollar figure on the cost of fixing the system that last year took in $1.8 billion in federal, state and county funds. Rather, according to his communications director Barry Ciccocioppo, he believes state and county officials “in the trenches” should determine that.

The report highlighted the difficulty of hiring qualified candidates, the ineffective training new hires receive and overbearing caseloads child welfare workers face, including far too much paperwork. Low pay — an average salary for a caseworker is about $30,000 — and dangerous situations also contribute to tremendous turnover, the report found.

Those are all issues Philadelphia’s Department of Humans Services has grappled with, especially in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, which triggered the adoption of 24 new mandatory reporting laws and greatly increased the number of child abuse hotline calls coming in statewide. In Philadelphia, child abuse reports increased 17 percent from 2014 to 2016.

The Auditor General report, available here, laid out 17 recommendations, which include:

  • Creation of an independent child protection ombudsman’s office to review complaints and recommend system improvements.
  • Adding clerical staff to assist with paperwork that cuts into caseworker’s time in the field.
  • Implementing a uniform computer software system for children’s welfare agencies statewide.
  • Giving caseworkers the authority to receive necessary medical, drug-and-alcohol-treatment and school records without requiring releases.
  • Providing more intensive and appropriate training — including self-defense training and mock court experience — to prepare caseworkers.

DePasquale said he was appalled to learn that caseworkers, some who are removing children from homes in the middle of the night, are not typically trained to handle crisis situations, effectively interview hostile people or practice self-defense. “Yet they are expected to enter dangerous situations and make lifesaving decisions,” DePasquale said. He noted police often respond in pairs to domestic calls.

“In the caseworker world you have one worker with a bachelor’s degree going into that same environment with no law enforcement training and no backup,” he said. “Who in their right mind thinks that’s a good idea?”

DePasquale said the solution isn’t all money — he noted that Cumberland County elected to pay its caseworkers significantly more but still saw high turnover rates. But more resources are needed from the state, he said. Philadelphia recently received additional funds to hire more caseworkers in its contracted neighborhood-based agencies. The ratio of cases to caseworker in Philadelphia had risen in some cases as high as 30 cases per worker. The ratio is now down to about 11:1.

The city’s DHS commissioner, Cynthia Figueroa, said she agreed with many of the recommendations in the report but noted the city has already taken steps in certain areas.

“A lot of the things are things that we agree with and Philadelphia has been at the forefront of already addressing a lot of these issues,” Figueroa said. “We didn’t wait for a report or someone else.”

A training program called DHS University focuses on mandatory training requirements, and the agency already hosts simulated legal trainings to prepare workers for court, Figueroa said. DHS also has one of the higher average salaries for a caseworker at about $44,000 per year.

Figueroa agreed that more funding could make a big difference, though. DHS has asked the state for more money next year for a series of pilot programs to prevent children from entering the system because of poverty instead of neglect or abuse. Funding would go toward rapid housing relocation or short-term home repairs, among other prevention services.

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