In the wake of a 39 percent jump in reports to Pennsylvania’s child abuse hotline in 2015, the Auditor General’s office is examining the safety of at-risk children by assessing the stresses on caseworkers at children and youth agencies.
“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,” Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said.
The review will cover 13 counties including Allegheny, Fayette and Cambria.
“It’s always good to be looked at, to have fresh views,” said Marc Cherna, director of Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services. But he said he hopes DePasquale’s review, “doesn’t generalize but (looks) at the complexity of the system.”
According to Cherna, Allegheny County’s Office of Children, Youth and Families received 14,129 calls of suspected abuse or neglect in 2016; workers screened out half of the calls and assigned about 7,000 to caseworkers for investigation.
On any given day, Cherna said, each caseworker is dealing with an average of nine to 12 cases.
“The challenge with children and youth, it’s different than anywhere else, is that you can’t put these kids on a waiting list,” Cherna said. “So you get a call of an allegation of abuse or neglect, you must go out. You can’t wait on those kind of things because children’s lives are at stake.”
Cherna acknowledged that the job is stressful, but said caseworkers have a support team to assist them including mental health specialists, addiction specialists and nurses from UPMC Children’s Hospital.
“But that said, it’s the most difficult job you can possibly do," he said.
According to Cherna, when the office is fully staffed, it has 328 caseworkers, but it currently has 35 vacancies. He said the turnover rate is about 15 percent annually, which he said wasn't bad considering the job's difficulties.
The auditor general’s report on the impact of case overload and turnover is expected by the fall and is intended to offer recommendations to ease these stressors so that Children and Youth Services agencies can improve the quality of care that at-risk children receive.