Eugene DePasquale

Eugene DePasquale, state auditor general. Thursday, April 7, 2016. John Rucosky/The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

HARRISBURG — Spurred by revelations of overwhelmed child protection caseworkers in county agencies, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is launching a special investigation into child welfare services across the state.

“Unfortunately, our audits have increasingly found high staff turnover and heavy caseloads affecting the care that children and youth service caseworkers can provide across the commonwealth,” DePasquale said.

The review follows an audit in York County. But the new investigation will examine child protection in 13 counties, including York, Allegheny, Bucks, Cambria, Centre, Crawford, Dauphin, Delaware, Erie, Fayette, Luzerne, Monroe and Philadelphia.

Those counties were selected to provide a representative sample of the counties across the state, said Susan Woods, a spokeswoman for the auditor general.

In 2015, 40,590 reports were registered at ChildLine, the state’s child-abuse hotline — a 39 percent increase in reports over 2014.

York County had the fourth-highest total reports at 1,832 in 2015.

Every county, except Juniata, received an increased number of abuse reports over 2014.

DePasquale directed his team to examine the safety of at-risk children by assessing the state of children and youth caseworkers across the state.

This review will result in a special report that will:

• Examine the job stresses for caseworkers in the targeted counties;

• Evaluate the impact of high turnover rates and minimal training; and

• Offer recommendations so these agencies can improve the quality of care at-risk children receive.

This special report, called “State of the Child,” is expected to be completed by fall.

The move will be welcomed by advocates who feel that too often child protection only gets examined on a county-by-county basis.

Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice in Bernville, said the problems revealed in York are mirrored in county agencies across the state.

“This is systemic,” she said.

Less than a month ago, DePasquale released an audit documenting shortcomings in the Dauphin County Children and Youth Services.

DePasquale’s audit found the Dauphin County agency had significant staff turnover, including in 2014 alone, the resignation of 28 of 166 employees. This came at a time when amendments to the state’s child protection law resulted in significant increases in child abuse referrals and child abuse investigation and cases.

“Coincidentally it was during 2014 that neglected and abused Jarrod Tutko Jr. was found dead in a home on Green Street in Harrisburg,” DePasquale said at the time the review of the Dauphin County agency was released. “I am not alleging that staffing shortages led to Jarrod’s death, but having a fully staffed agency could well have helped prevent his tragic passing.”

Palm echoed DePasquale’s observation that the challenges facing child protection caseworkers have come in waves as the state changed the law, creating a crush of new reports of suspected child abuse at a time when many long-time caseworkers left the field.

“It’s critical that we take another look to see, did we fix it or did we exacerbate” the problems, Palm said.

State Rep. Kathy Watson, R-Bucks County, chairwoman of the state House Children and Youth Committee, said she's glad that DePasquale is taking a look at the child protective services agencies. 

“When our committee spent considerable time and effort updating state laws with respect to child abuse and child protection, we immediately knew that caseworkers are overwhelmed by the situations in which they can find themselves,” Watson said. She said additional legislation to try to alleviate the understaffing and training woes could be in the offing.

John Finnerty is CNHI's Statehouse reporter in Harrisburg. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.