DePasquale seeks fix to broken child system

Low pay, high stress, lack of resources cited as top issues in CYF staff turnover

HOLLIDAYSBURG — State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Thursday that he plans to issue a spring report with ideas to address the state’s broken child welfare system.

At a meeting with Blair County leaders and employees from the county’s Children, Youth & Families office, DePasquale heard comments about high turnover, increased responsibilities, irregular training and a lack of resources to help mentally ill youth.

Those and additional issues surfaced last year in DePasquale’s “State of the Child” report, which pinpointed factors as to why the state’s child welfare system cannot guarantee a child’s safety. Even though the state spent nearly $2 million in 2016 on its child welfare system, 46 children died and 79 nearly died, the report stated.

CYF Director Ashley Gehrdes identified staff retention as one of the system’s biggest problems.

The year before last, Gehrdes said her office lost 21 caseworkers. Currently, the office has eight vacancies on its staff of 39 caseworkers. And another resignation will be effective at the end of the month.

“We lose them to better-paying jobs that are less stressful,” Gehrdes said.

DePasquale asked for ideas on how to reduce turnover and help the children. He acknowledged that higher pay could make a difference.

Less paperwork could be an answer, Gehrdes said, because the paperwork takes caseworkers’ time and keeps them from working with the children and their families.

One of the caseworkers asked DePasquale if he was familiar with the process of entering a family’s demographics into the computer system managing that information. It’s a process that involves about 200 boxes, she said.

DePasquale also recognized that the child welfare system has taken on more responsibilities prompted by the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, which increased reports and referrals to child welfare agencies.

But lawmakers, DePasquale said, came through with no additional funding to handle that work nor have they come through with more funding to address child welfare issues related to illegal drug use.

In Blair County, caseworker April Hauck’s responsibilities now include initial assessments of drug-addicted infants born to substance abusing mothers. Gehrdes said that job was created about two years ago in response to the increasing need. Hauck said she averages about one assessment per week, which DePasquale recognized as significant considering the size of the county.

Caseworkers also acknowledged the need for more training opportunities focused on keeping them safe while they do their jobs. It’s training that some of the more experienced caseworkers have had but not the less experienced ones, they said.

Caseworker Lesa Ramper said that if she suspects she’s entering an unpredictable situation, she seeks out the backup support of a fellow caseworker who has the same training she has been through.

“That’s where retention plays a huge part,” Ramper said.

Gehrdes said her office also tries to address this issue by pairing less experienced caseworkers with more experienced ones and by contacting police when help might be needed.

The problem with depending on police, DePasquale pointed out, is that state police patrol two-thirds of the state’s land mass so troopers aren’t always available when the system needs them.

President Judge Elizabeth Doyle told DePasquale that the system needs to expand the resources available to address teenagers with mental health issues. The county is struggling with placement, she said.

State Rep. Judy Ward, R-Hollidaysburg, attended Thursday’s meeting, which was similar to ones DePasquale has been holding in other counties. He praised Ward for attending and said the turnout of lawmakers has been minimal.

Ward said she appreciated DePasquale’s efforts because conversations like the ones held Thursday can lead to effective changes.

Commissioners Bruce Erb and Ted Beam Jr. added their praise for DePasquale’s attention to the issues.

“Anything you can do to be of assistance will be appreciated,” Beam said.

DePasquale said his office intends, in the spring, “to come out with a road map for the governor and legislators on how we can fix this.”

Gehrdes said she appreciates the time and attention the auditor general is devoting to an issue that her office and staff have long recognized.

“I’m glad he’s invested in making some positive changes,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.