HARRISBURG – Some of the people hired to help families in crisis in Pennsylvania need government assistance themselves to buy groceries.

That’s one of the shocking revelations in a scathing report issued earlier this month by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale after a six-month review of the state’s system of child protection.

As Pennsylvania policymakers struggle to figure out how to fix a child protection system the auditor general describes as “broken,” almost everyone agrees that one nettlesome aspect of the problem is keeping caseworkers on the job.

To begin with, the caseworkers -- hired to recognize when children are being harmed and help decide what to do about it – aren’t paid enough,  DePasquale said.

His investigators learned that in some of the state’s counties, starting pay is so low caseworkers are eligible for food stamps.

That’s no surprise to Tom Herman, president of the Service Employees International Union, Local 668, which represents many of the county caseworkers across the state.

“The auditor general’s report is spot-on,” Herman said. “Caseworkers and child protection advocates are grossly underpaid and have been for years.”

If counties and the state took a serious crack at addressing the poor pay, it would go a long way towards solving the state’s struggles with turnover among caseworkers, a crisis that’s hamstrung child protection in counties across the state, he said.

“If the system was adequately paid and adequately staffed, we would not be dealing with the problems the auditor general’s report outlined,” he said.

“Child protection law requires timelines for investigating potential child abuse that can’t be met with the staffing that currently exists,” Herman said. “When you get into that situation, you are given a caseload that’s impossible to meet and requirements that are impossible to meet. It’s no wonder people say ‘screw this’ and leave.”

The auditor general examined 13 counties intended to be a cross-section of the state -- Allegheny, Bucks, Cambria, Centre, Crawford, Dauphin, Delaware, Erie, Fayette, Luzerne, Monroe, Philadelphia and York.

Starting salaries for caseworkers in those counties was just over $30,000 a year, on average, DePasquale said. That’s about $14 an hour, an hour.

A family of three qualifies for food stamps if they get less than $32,256 a year in gross income, according to the state Department of Human Services.

A survey of counties in central and western Pennsylvania, by the Pennsylvania newspapers of Community Newspapers Holding Inc., revealed similar findings to the auditor general’s report.

Cambria County pays caseworkers a starting salary of $26,612 a year. In Lawrence County, the starting pay is $30,683.

In Snyder and Montour County’s caseworker pay starts at just over $21,000. In Northumberland County, it’s just over $22,000.

It's not all about pay

The starting pay is only part of the picture, county data shows. While the auditor general and others say the protective service agencies struggle with turnover, county data shows that enough caseworkers say on the job that the average pay in even rural counties is sub-par

While the auditor general, the union leader and others contacted for this story all agreed that turnover is plaguing the system, in the county agencies surveyed for this story, enough workers remain on the job that average caseworker pay is substantially more than starting rates identified in DePasquale’s report. In Northumberland County, the average caseworker makes $35,000 a year.

In Crawford County, the intake caseworkers, who do the investigations, average $41,168.40 a year.

Even at that, DePasquale’s report found that almost every administrator running child protection agencies that his staff interviewed said they struggle to keep people.

Beyond dealing with the emotional toll most people can imagine comes with dealing with families in crisis, caseworkers have other unpleasant chores that the public probably doesn’t appreciate.

That includes monitoring people who are taking drug-tests to make sure that the urine submitted belongs to the person being tested, Betzi White, the administrator for Cambria County Children and Youth Services, told the auditor general’s investigators.

“I’d like to feel like they’re being compensated commensurate with what their doing.”

One of the issues that exacerbates the turnover problem is that many caseworkers transfer into other county jobs that pay better once they get the experience to get those jobs, Fayette County Children and Youth administrator Gina D’Auria told the auditor general.

“It seems like we’re always behind,” she said.

In Pennsylvania, child protection is mostly funded by the state, but direct management of the programs is left to the counties.

Boosting pay for caseworker isn’t as simple as it may seem, said Brian Bornman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Children and Youth Administrators.

For one thing, county caseworkers are often paid the same no matter which social service agency they serve, he said. Sometimes there is union resistance to carving out pay boosts that would give child protection staff better compensation than their peers in other county offices, Bornman said. Other times, county leaders are their own, are unwilling to give child protection better pay out of concern that other workers may feel like they’re being treated unfairly, he said.

Bornman said a 2016 survey of county caseworker pay by his group had similar findings to those in the auditor general’s report and the CNHI review.

While boosting pay would probably help counties recruit more applicants for caseworker jobs, it’s less clear how much of a dent it would make in the turnover problem, he said.

“This work is not for everyone, as the concerns of whether you made the right decisions that will protect kids when needed, but not break up families when unnecessary, often cause great stress and sleepless nights,” Bornman said.

“Higher pay does not changes the stress levels, the caseloads are still way too high to be manageable, and there is still the lingering frustration that they got into the field to help families, but feel like all they are doing is filling out forms.”

When DePasquale released his damning report, state Rep. Katherine Watson, R-Bucks County, the chairwoman of the House children and youth committee, said his findings “underscore what we on the legislative committee have known” about the challenges facing caseworkers. Watson’s committee held two public hearings last year aimed at identifying the barriers facing caseworkers.

State Rep. Tedd Nesbit, R-Mercer County, is a member of the children and youth committee.

Nesbit agreed with Bornman that while there’s a consensus that caseworkers aren’t getting paid enough, giving them bigger paychecks won’t solve the state’s child protection problems.

“The problem is turnover isn’t just because of the pay,” he said “These people have incredibly hard jobs.”

The state needs to provide them the resources and support to make those jobs easier, he said. Reducing the amount of paperwork caseworkers must complete and reducing their caseloads would help, he said.

Watson said Friday that pay is an issue, but since compensation rates are set by the counties, her committee is more directly focused on making the caseworkers’ job less burdened by paperwork and other distractions.

She sees a “three-legged stool” of priorities, including better training for caseworkers, providing supervisors more time to mentor caseworkers; and getting the public to have a greater appreciation for what caseworkers do.

“I know that grocery stores take cash, so they need to be paid reasonably,” Watson said. “But there needs to be a psychic reward so that end of the day, they feel satisfied with what they’ve accomplished. Right now, caseworkers have an enormous amount of frustration.”

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CNHI Harrisburg Bureau

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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