Allegheny County’s child welfare system was considered a “national disgrace” in the early ‘90s, but now it is being held up as a national model.
That’s according to Marc Cherna, director of Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS), who is the first person ever awarded the Casey Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Child Welfare Leadership.
The award presented by the Casey Family Programs recognizes someone who has contributed substantially to the field of child welfare.
Cherna said he was both overwhelmed and humbled by receiving the award.
“Casey Family Programs is the largest foundation in the country that deals with child welfare, and it’s run by folks who are really the best and the brightest in the field and have had a lot of experience,” Cherna said. “They’ve run major organizations, and for my peers to recognize me that way is really very gratifying.”
Cherna said he came to Allegheny after a national search for someone to change the county’s bad reputation.
“There was a bipartisan search committee and I was selected and started here in the beginning of ’96, and we were able to do some things to stabilize the organization and we’ve been gradually improving it,” Cherna said.
Since 2005, the number of Allegheny County children in out-of-home care — temporary homes away from their parents — has decreased by 48 percent.
“The way I like to look at it is when I started in 1996 we had 3,318 children in out-of-home care, and today we have 1,408,” Cherna said. “So we’ve had quite a number of children who are living safely in their own homes or have reached permanency.”
In 2012 alone, 80 percent of children in the county’s child welfare system exited to permanent homes.
Cherna said more than 50 percent of the children in placement are with relatives.
“What we find is the vast majority of parents really love their children and want to adequately care for them, and with some assistance, sometimes they can, so children can live safely in their homes,” Cherna said. “If that does not happen, then we try to move children to permanency as quick as we can.”
He said the most challenging part of his job is trying to meet the needs of people when the supply is nowhere near the amount they need.
“Housing is a major issue, affordable housing, and a lot of folks are having a lot of trouble maintaining their housing,” Cherna said. “Disease of addiction, the disease of mental illness, getting good treatment and being able to deal with that are also really challenging, and having the resources to really provide good services.”
He said the most rewarding part is helping people, improving lives and making a difference.