HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County is creating 10 part-time child protection officer positions for up to six months in its Office of Children, Youth and Families to address a backlog of work.
This backlog prompted the state to recently issue the county agency’s third interim business license.
Commissioner Laura Burke said on Thursday that despite efforts to address low staffing levels at CYF, more needs to be done.
“The state didn’t tell us to hire (temporary social workers),” Burke said Thursday. “It was an idea of how we can do more than what we have done.”
The state Department of Social Services recently informed the commissioners that CYF was receiving a third interim license that would extend through November 5.
The state previously issued provisional licenses on May 5, 2022 and November 5, 2022.
The May 3 letter from the state to the county, indicating that the county would receive its third provisional license, also mentions that the state is issuing a maximum of four consecutive provisional licenses.
The state based its actions on the findings of the inspection of child protection investigation reports and the county’s efforts to correct prior violations.
“It’s a variety of things,” Burke said. “But the main thing they’re concerned about is our response time. Due to staff shortages, we were unable to meet response times.
The latest state report showed Blair County as of March had 356 General Protective Services reports pending action, with the oldest submitted on October 24, 2022. The General Protective Services reports are those alleging a variety of child protection issues, excluding child abuse.
Burke said the county continues to prioritize allegations of child abuse that are reported through child protective services.
“We’re keeping control of those, but the general protective cases are waiting…and that’s something we’re trying to work out,” she said.
Burke said Thursday she does not know the current number of cases pending in General Protective Services, but thinks it should be down. The March figure, she said, reflects a period when CYF staffing levels were very low.
And that should continue to drop, she said, because the county was able to hire full-time social workers this spring who are completing a certification training program offered by the Child Welfare Resource Center of Pittsburgh.
The county is also in the process, she said, of hiring three more social workers and arranging interviews for five candidates.
The wages board, made up of commissioners and assistant comptroller Angela Wagner, voted on Thursday to hire the 10 temporary part-time child protection workers.
Burke said plans include reaching out to former CYF employees to see if they would be willing to handle temporary work, with flexible hours, at $17.29 per hour based on the current union contract.
“We will primarily be looking for already certified social workers who can start and not need training,” the commissioner told the wages commission.
Burke also talked about seeking out-of-county child protection workers who could take on the temporary assignment, in addition to contacting the state for help identifying qualified individuals.
As for the expenses associated with the effort, Burke said she doesn’t think it would be significant because the CYF budget has been “underspent” given low staffing levels.
“Hopefully we can work through our issues and get back to business as usual and not incur any additional expenses,” she said. “But we’ll see.”
The state’s letter, signed by Undersecretary Laval Miller-Wilson, also said the department plans to continue working with the county on improvement and remediation plans.
Regional department officials have visited Blair County weekly for about a year, Burke said, but changes to date have not been effective in addressing the issues.
She also said she attended a March meeting with Miller-Wilson and plans to attend an upcoming meeting with Acting DHS Secretary Valerie Arkoosh.
“They’re not just there to license us, but also to provide us with assistance,” Burke said.
Brandon Cwalina, press secretary for the state Department of Human Services, said Thursday that the department plans to continue working with county leaders and its child welfare agency.
“Child safety remains the top priority of DHS and the Office of Children, Youth and Families, and all licensed county agencies must comply with regulations,” Cwalina said in a written statement to the Mirror.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.