Auditor general asks county agency for input

Eugene DePasquale, state auditor general, gave Lycoming County Children and Youth Services officials a homework assignment after his visit to the agency Wednesday morning: decide on two or three regulations that could be changed or done away with to make their jobs easier.

“Remove money,” he said. “What can the state do to make your jobs easier? The idea of new money coming anytime soon is not gonna happen, so we have to find ways to make it a little bit easier with the resources you have.”

DePasquale’s visit was one of several across the state on a tour following up his 80-page report, “State of the Child,” which “found that Pennsylvania’s child-welfare system is broken,” a spokesperson said.

Commissioner Rick Mirabito, who sat in on the meeting along with Commissioners Tony Mussare and Jack McKernan, suggested problems may have arose from the regulation overhaul that happened in reaction to Jerry Sandusky’s arrest in 2011. Mark Egly, the agency’s director, added he feels the “focus has changed from serving and working with our families to our job is to complete this paperwork.”

“What might be helpful is if we could look at what’s being done in other states,” Mirabito said. “What’s happening in other states where there wasn’t such a draconian incident that drove people to the extreme? It’s a hard sell in the legislature because no one wants to be accused of not keeping kids safe, but it’s like, are we doing overkill?”

On top of getting ideas to take back to Harrisburg, DePasquale visited Lycoming County to learn about the agency’s School Outreach Program and to discuss its low staff turnover rate, which goes against statewide trend.

Mark Longenberger, director of sports services, said the agency has a case worker assigned to each school district in the county, working with all levels of education from elementary through high school. They have contacts with all support services in town and serve as mental health liaisons, he said.

“They’re really kind of a one-stop shop for the school districts, for the students,” he said. “We also focus on truancy.”

Frequent truancy, or intentional, unjustified absence from school, is reported to the agency, which then sends a case worker to follow up with the family in question to make sure things are okay and to help the student get to school.

“The one thing that kids can benefit from is staying in school and getting that education,” Egly said. “That’s the key to a successful life, so we really make a concerted effort to try to make sure we keep kids in school as much as possible.”

Egly went on to say that juvenile probation office referrals have continued to decrease over the past 10 years, and there seems to be a correlation between that and the agency’s prevention efforts. He said they dropped from over 600 referrals per year to just over 300 last year.

An organization’s system has to be able to manage programs and provide support in order to successfully operate the many programs that Children and Youth Services provides, Egly said. That’s where the agency’s low turnover rate becomes a big plus.

“Before you can do the bigger stuff in the community, you have to make sure your in-house operations are solid,” Egly said.

Partnering with other people and organizations in the community “has been a keystone” to the agency’s success, he added.

For example, the Youth Development Task Force, a group consisting of student representatives from each of the county’s eight school districts, was formed to work with the county’s health coalition, which looks at issues affecting the health of the county.

Consisting of local professionals, the coalition tried to address drug and alcohol issues with county youth by running anti-drug campaigns. Recently, the coalition decided perhaps the youth themselves might have better ideas of how to help their peers.

“We’re the adults, we think we know best, but we need to listen to our youth,” Egly said. “The students come and run their meetings. They’ve noticed what’s going on with their peers in school, and one of their biggest concerns is the mental health issues that youth are facing.”

“They changed the campaign from ‘Find your anti-drug’ to ‘Find your worth’ because they really want to focus on self-esteem and help folks address their mental health issues,” he added.

Before leaving, DePasquale asked for ideas of which regulations could be changed or positions that could be streamlined so the agency could “still protect children but not have to do so much paperwork.”

“I want to focus on the art of what can get done,” he said. “I’d love to hear about how we can streamline this.”