Commissioners stand behind those seeking to improve child welfare

To the editor:

The Mifflin County Commissioners would like to respond to the letter to the editor by Karen French published on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, by providing factual information rather than simply stating opinions.

As commissioners of this county and as taxpaying citizens, we also take great pride in our community and take seriously the trust that voters have placed in us. We don’t take lightly any concerns that are raised about any department in the county and we are well aware of our responsibility to ensure that departments are run properly and efficiently.

There are currently 39 children in out-of-home care in the custody of Mifflin County Children and Youth. These children have been removed from their homes by a court for reasons that may include sexual abuse, substance abuse by the parent, physical injury to the child, safety, abandonment, serious emotional and physical neglect and trauma.

In her letter, Ms. French stated that, “The taxpayers of Mifflin County are paying for people that are to be working with families to strengthen the family, not tear it apart.” We would agree with that statement and we believe Mifflin County Children and Youth does exactly that. Children and Youth spends approximately $900,000 annually ($3.3 million since July of 2010) on prevention services to children and families in an effort to keep children safely in their homes and with their families. Over the past five fiscal years, the agency has seen a 41 percent increase in the number of children served through the intake process (over 3,000 referrals) yet has seen a 31 percent decrease in the number of children placed in out-of-home care. In Fiscal Year (FY) 08/09 there were 103 children in out-of-home placement throughout the year with an average of over 80 children in care per month. In FY 12/13 those numbers dropped to 71 children in out-of-home placement throughout the year with an average of 49 children in care per month.

So far in FY 13/14, the agency has served 55 children in out-of-home placement and the current number of children in placement is 39. There are almost 11,000 children under the age of 18 in Mifflin County. We believe these statistics speak volumes about the efforts the Children and Youth agency is making in keeping children safely in their homes whenever possible. Furthermore, after the Department of Public Welfare’s review of agency records, they supported the agency’s assessment to seek out of home placement for these 39 children and for them to currently be in care.

Ms. French also stated that, “Children and Youth is not a judge, therefore it should not act as such.” Again, the Commissioners agree with this statement and are thankful that the agency does not have to fulfill the role of judge as we have two qualified individuals who have been elected into those roles. The agency does not have the authority to remove children from their family, only the judge has that authority. If the agency has concerns about the safety and wellbeing of a child, the agency must file a petition and present evidence to a judge. If the agency is requesting removal of a child from their parents due to safety concerns, every single one of those parents receives court appointed attorneys to represent them and has the opportunity to present their own evidence as to why their child should not be removed.

Ultimately, it is the judge’s decision as to whether or not a child should be removed from the care of their parents, not Children and Youth. If a child is removed from their parents by the judge, there are regular court hearings held to review the case and the progress of the family. Again, the judge decides if and when a child should be returned to their parents, not Children and Youth. If a child remains in out-of-home care for 15 out of 22 months and a parent has not rectified the issues that led to the initial placement, the agency is legally obligated by the Juvenile Act to file a Termination of Parental Rights petition and seek an alternate permanency option for the child. If reunification is not possible, adoption is the next goal the agency must pursue for the child. The Commissioners recognize that these cases are highly emotional and difficult but each one is under the jurisdiction of the court and the judge is the final decision maker for those cases, not Children and Youth.

Ms. French also comments on the use of residential care for children and the cost associated with those types of placements. Mifflin County Children and Youth has had a 32 percent reduction in the use of residential care for children in out-of-home care over the past five years. Residential care is a last resort type of placement when a child cannot safely and successfully be maintained in a lower level of care, such as foster care. If the agency needs to place a child in residential care, it requires permission from the judge to do so and only when the agency has proven it is the type of placement necessary to meet the needs of the child.

There is also a type of placement called residential treatment that can be utilized when a doctor determines that it is medically necessary to meet the individual child’s specialized needs and again, requires permission from a judge. The child’s ongoing placement in residential treatment is reviewed by a treating doctor at a minimum of every 90 days to try to step the child down to a lower level of care as soon as it is safe and appropriate to do so. Residential treatment services are paid for by Medical Assistance because of the doctor determining that it is a medically necessary placement so the agency is not paying out of pocket for these types of placements. Of the 39 children in care, one child is in residential treatment and two are in residential care. While we can appreciate Ms. French wanting county dollars to stay in county, the Commissioners are committed to meeting the needs of every child in out-of-home care and not denying a child needed services just because of money.

Ms. French also stated, “I have never seen as much turnover in an agency as there is here in Mifflin County. Yes, there is a higher turnover rate in child welfare than in other professions; however, not to the extent that Mifflin County Children and Youth has.” According to the Pennsylvania Civil Service Commission (who tracks this data for the state), in the most recent fiscal year, Mifflin County had a lower turnover rate than 43 other counties in the state at 8.7 percent. Ms. French’s own agency (Perry County) had a turnover rate of 17.65 more than twice Mifflin County’s rate.

Turnover is an issue across the state in Child Welfare as evidenced by the state having a ‘Recruitment and Retention Committee’ through the Pennsylvania Children and Youth Administrator’s Association (PCYA) to try to address this concern statewide. Reasons often cited for individuals leaving these positions include high volumes of paperwork, high volumes of stress, and insufficient pay to compensate for the stress level of the job among other things. Mifflin County continues to focus on recruitment and retention of valuable employees just as other child welfare agencies across the state are doing. For Ms. French to state that the turnover rate is higher in Mifflin County than in others is simply inaccurate.

Lastly, we would like to touch on Ms. French’s statement, “How can anyone minimize 10 pages of citations? This is far from ordinary with any other Children and Youth Agency.” When reviewing the Licensing Inspection Summaries (LIS) of the other 66 counties in the state, we discovered that the average size of the LIS document across the state is 11.5 pages long. Mifflin County actually has the same number as or less pages of citations than 41 other counties during their inspections. What this tells us is that Mifflin County Children and Youth has room for improvement as well as many other child welfare agencies across the state. Never once through this entire process have the County Commissioners or the Director of Children and Youth minimized this situation.

In a previous letter to The Sentinel, Mifflin County Children and Youth Director Mackenzie Seiler stated, “From the beginning of this investigation, we have welcomed OCYF (the Office of Children, Youth and Families through DPW) to come in and review our records. We have never been, nor will we ever be a perfect agency without room for improvement. There will always be room to grow and improve in the services we provide to the children and families that live in our community. We will never stop seeking to make those improvements.”

The Mifflin County Commissioners stand firm behind Ms. Seiler and all of the valuable employees at Mifflin County Children and Youth in their pursuit of improving services to families while ensuring the safety of all children that live in our county. We are proud of the work they do and we are here to support them in whatever way we can. We are hopeful this letter provides clarity to the citizens of our county and demonstrates the ongoing commitment that the Mifflin County Commissioners and the staff of Mifflin County Children and Youth have to serving the children and families in our community.

Mifflin County Commissioners

Mark A. Sunderland

Otis E. Riden, Jr.

Kevin P. Kodish