A recent study showed how county Children and Youth Services in 2009 measured up in a wide range of categories associated with achieving its goals of ensuring safety and permanency for children.
The Porch Light Project, released by the Pennsylvania Partnership for Children, rated each county in the state based on performance indicators such as child abuse reports, substantiated abuse, children entering foster care, reentry into foster care, foster care placement stability and timely reunification with parents.
The report compared the county with the state and with counties with similar demographics, or "rural mix" counties.
CRAIG S. McKIBBEN Jr./Sun-Gazette
Tabitha, left, claps while singing the alphabet for her daughter during a visitation at the Children and Youth Services office in Williamsport Thursday morning. Frequent and quality visits help speed up the reunification process between parents and children removed from their homes, said Lycoming County Children and Youth Services administrator Mark Egly.
According to the report, in 2009 there were fewer reports of child abuse in the county compared to either the state and rural mix counties.
The 6.3 reports of abuse per 1,000 children - or 187 reports countywide - were less than the 8.2 and 8.3 reports per 1,000 for rural mix counties and the state, respectively.
However, more of the reported abuses - almost 25.7 percent in the county compared to 16.4 percent statewide and 17.4 percent in rural mix counties - were substantiated, the report said.
"We substantiate more," said Mark Egly, county Children and Youth Services administrator. "I don't know if that is a good thing or a bad thing. I think if we would err, it would be on the side of child safety."
According to Egly, once a suspected incident of child abuse is reported, the agency will investigate, assess the situation and render a decision within 60 days.
Egly said he has confidence in agency caseworkers who deal with child abuse reports.
"I think we are very fortunate because we have a very tenured work force," he said. "We have a lot of long-term, experienced staff. If there is one thing I don't worry about, it's staff making bad decisions."
"Most of our substantiated abuse is sexual abuse. The threshold has to be pretty high to be considered physical abuse. It has to cause significant injuries that cause severe pain and loss of function," he said. "Sexual abuse is not necessarily intercourse. It could be fondling or other inappropriate contact or exploitation for gratification."
The report also showed that one in eight abused children in the county had another substantiated incident of abuse after the first reported incident, compared to one in 11 for both the state and rural mix counties.
The report itself states the data "may be overstated," while Egly said the newly reported abuse typically comes to light during treatment for the initial abuse. It is rare that an abused child is returned home and abused again, he said.
"It may be another disclosure during treatment. What rarely happens is that we have indicated some abuse, the child is returned to the home and re-abused," Egly said. "That is extremely rare."
The report shows that on any given day, 150 children in the county have families who receive in-home services to address concerns over child safety and well-being.
That data may be understated, according to the report.
The data simply accounts for families who have been formally accepted into an in-home service program and are in the process of developing a family service plan to keep their children in their home.
Far more families are involved in voluntary prevention programs designed to keep families from getting to the point where the agency has to intervene, Egly said.
Prevention programs are indicative of how child welfare has changed over the last 10 years, he said.
In the past, a caseworker received a complaint, investigated it and gave parents a "prescription" of what is needed to be done to keep a child in the home. The caseworker would return to the home and if the prescription had not been followed, would begin the process to remove the child.
Now, child welfare agencies take a pro-active role with parents to give them the tools to be better parents, he said.
One of those tools is Family Decision Making, in which parents, relatives, neighbors, clergy, teachers and others with close ties to the family meet to discuss family strengths and resolve, as a group, issues the family is dealing with.
The report shows that more than half of county children placed into foster care for the first time are re-unified with parents or a relative within 12 months, compared to 62 percent for rural mix counties and 48 percent for the state.
More of those children - almost 38 percent - re-enter foster care within a year after re-unification compared to other rural mix counties and the state.
Egly explained why the county's rate is higher.
The county maintains an emergency shelter at the Lysock View Complex in Loyalsock Township that allows the agency to quickly - but temporarily - remove a child from a home in the event of a "flare-up" between the parent and child.
The shelter provides a cooling off period for the parent and child. Although the time in shelter is brief, it is still counted as a reentry into foster care, he said.
The county fared well statistically in the foster care stability category, with fewer children experiencing multiple foster care placements compared to rural mix counties and the state.
Egly said, overall, the report "provides a fairly accurate description of Lycoming County," shows the county does well in achieving permanency for children in a timely fashion and ensures the safety of children.
It shows the county works to reduce reentries into the foster care system and, whenever possible, place children with close relatives, which can be less traumatic than being placed with strangers.
"My feeling is that we need to be held accountable," Egly said. "We are charged with the safety of children and ensuring permanency for children so they can thrive and reach their potential as individuals."
There are, however, flaws in the report, he said.
Some of the indicators combine data from both child welfare and juvenile delinquent youths involved with juvenile probation, he said.
"It would be more meaningful and helpful if the data was broken down between child welfare and juvenile justice data," he said. "I have no authority over (juvenile probation) and they have none over us, but all their placement costs are paid out of child welfare budget and thus, much of the data is reported together."
"You're looking at a lot of data that can point out strengths and weaknesses, but it's important not to read too much into it," he said. "We're dealing with individuals and individual families, and each one is unique."
"(Poor statistics) doesn't mean good work isn't taking place," he said.