I am neither a spokesman or employee of the Crawford County Human Services agency or for Crawford County. I have, however, been a community representative to the CCHS board for nearly 15 years.
Our board is an advisory board that consists of community members, healthcare and mental health providers, users of agency services, their family members, and administrative staff of the agency. CCHS administers programs for mental health, developmental disabilities and early intervention among the population of Crawford County. Additionally, CCHS is responsible for Children and Youth Services and performing tasks required by the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law. Our agency is funded primarily by the state and oversees funds in the millions of dollars for all the services provided. If there is a shortfall in funding, however, Crawford County government must make up the difference.
I am by no means an expert, but my volunteer position on the board gives me a unique perspective that most citizens simply don't get. In general, the mental health and disability functions run without much incidence or notice, while the Children and Youth Services (CYS) operate with a quite a bit more attention, primarily because the safety and welfare of our children often involves parents and parenting, and those issues are lightning rods for angry emotions and confrontation.
Realize, our agency is constricted by state regulations and procedures in all areas of its endeavors but especially so in the arena of child protective services. The state has an incredibly large set of protocols in the reporting, investigation, documentation and disposition of all reports of potential child abuse and neglect. Our — yours and mine — agency has very little latitude in any of the areas of child abuse and neglect.
The logistics of the entire process in CYS is dependent upon caseworkers who investigate the claims concerning children initially and, if warranted, an ongoing relationships with the agency and the responsible parent or guardian.
In the many years on the board, I have never been privy or informed of any individual case across our entire group of services. Rather, as a board, we are given an overview of what and how our services are being provided, but not to whom those are being given. What we do hear, and hear often, is how difficult it is for our caseworkers to perform the important job of child safety and welfare.
The state and county are not dedicated to removing the child from the family setting, but only to provide a safe environment for children. Our agency strives first to protect the child and remediate the family situation if possible and warranted without removing the child and only, as a last resort, to remove the child and place them with a family member or known guardian, if possible.
If that is not possible, the child will be placed with an agency like Bethesda Lutheran Services. Our placement numbers in those agencies have dropped by nearly 30 percent as we seek the assistance provided by family members for children who must be removed from their home.
Of course, not all reports, which by the way, are mandated in many cases, result in proof of child abuse and/or neglect. Many reports are unfounded, but CYS is obligated by law to investigate every report. Our caseworkers are the boots on the ground doing the investigations and validating their merits. It is a terribly difficult job in difficult circumstances as these professionals often visit homes that are challenging and parents or guardians who are aggressively opposed to outside investigation.
Many times caseworkers are refused access to the home and require police intervention to assist in gaining access for their jobs. They are called out at all times of the week, day and night, and must fill out the necessary paperwork documenting their activity by the next day. It is a job that requires people who are in it for the welfare of children and who are willing to pay a very high personal price for their efforts.
It's difficult to maintain the appropriate staff levels of intake caseworkers because of the demanding conditions of the job both physically, personally, and mentally.
The amazing thing, however, is that it gets done and the overriding concern of child safety is accomplished and it's accomplished by our neighbors, the women and men who probably live down the block from us and whose kids go to our kids' schools.
Yes, just regular folks doing important and exceptional things for our society.
Gary DeSantis is a Meadville resident and author of the books "The Redemption of Benjamin Lowell" and “The 6th Floor.”