Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale thinks the state’s child welfare system is broken, and the head of McKean County’s Children and Youth Services doesn’t disagree.
Earlier this week, DePasquale briefed the state House Children and Youth Committee on a year-long review of the state’s child welfare system. His office prepared a report, “State of the Child,” which included a focus on learning how the opioid crisis in putting more of a strain on the CYS system “as they strive to keep Pennsylvania’s at-risk children safe.”
Dan Wertz, director of McKean County CYS, said DePasquale’s opinion about a broken system does raise some questions in his mind.
“What is Pennsylvania’s child welfare system? It raises the question of what is the commonwealth’s goal and how do we define it,” Wertz said. “Who is best positioned to take the actions to achieve it, and what does it cost?”
He isn’t talking about just the financial cost of achieving the goals of child safety and well-being, but instead about the cost to privacy rights of families and children, and the toll it takes on people from a social and individual standpoint.
“That’s where I tend to struggle with it it,” Wertz said, “from the philosophical perspective.”
The child welfare system is set up as reactive, not really as preventative.
“Often we find the underlying causes of those events are things that are the product of a larger area that needs to be addressed by hands that are beyond what we think of as a traditional CYS caseworker,” Wertz said. “We, as the auditor general pointed out, have experienced a larger number of kids in placement driven by substance abuse or the opioid epidemic.”
And that is more than can be addressed by a CYS caseworker.
Wertz said McKean County is fortunate in that community members have joined in to help address the underlying causes which could lead to abusive situations for children.
He pointed to organizations like Court Appointed Special Advocates, the Children’s Advocacy Center of McKean County and the First Step Clinic at Bradford Regional Medical Center as shining examples of agencies taking on major issues to help children.
“Those are all very important components, but are targeted at how do we respond,” Wertz said, adding that more needs to be done to address the underlying problems. “That’s a way I think the commonwealth can improve the system.”
Wertz has been involved with CYS for nearly two decades, and can’t remember another time when a high-ranking official in the state took such an in-depth look at the system.
“I appreciate the attention the auditor general paid to the system,” he said. “That’s probably the first time I’ve seen someone independent of the system itself try to take a step toward understanding how this works and offer some suggestions on how to improve what we do.”
He’s encouraged, and hopeful that DePasquale will follow through on the matter, and see that changes are implemented and monitored “to see that we achieved what we intended.”
The conclusion for DePasquale’s report to the House committee held some powerful words: “When a child dies from abuse or neglect, often there is a rush to judge the CYS system and find fault with what caseworkers did. But CYS is not the sole party responsible for keeping children safe. We are all ultimately responsible for the health and well-being of our children, and as a society our goal must be clear: No child should ever be mistreated, because one abused child is one too many.”