LEWISTOWN - For more than six months, accusations of misconduct by employees of Mifflin County Children and Youth Services have hovered over the agency.
As a result of several complaints by families forwarded to state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, and other legislators, an investigation was launched by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.
Benninghoff said he and state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, met with the Mifflin County Commissioners, as well as representatives from Children and Youth Services and nobody objected to having DPW take a closer look at CYS.
Sentinel photo by BUFFIE BOYER
Mifflin County Children and Youth Services was cited by the Department of Public Welfare recently. The agency said it vows to make improvements as the result of the six-month investigation.
Mifflin County Commissioner Kevin Kodish said he considers all matters pertaining to Mifflin County CYS to be vitally important.
"After receiving complaints and meeting with local legislators, we welcomed the thorough inquiry from the Department of Public Welfare. The sheer thoroughness of DPW's investigation produced some observations and recommendations that, moving forward, will assist Mifflin County CYS," Kodish said.
Benninghoff said he wanted to remain "objective" and allow DPW the time to look into the inner workings of Mifflin County CYS
When the investigation was still on-going, Benninghoff said the sheer volume of complaints was what initially concerned him, adding "this can't be a couple of disgruntled parents."
Benninghoff, who represents portions of both Mifflin and Centre Counties, said he does not receive these kind of complaints from families in Centre County.
Benninghoff said some families felt as if they were being set up for failure and/or treated unfairly. "Some of these stories break my heart," he added.
As a result of the investigation, CYS was issued citations regarding several procedural issues, which led the agency to take corrective action. The agency submitted a "Plan of Correction" that was subsequently approved by DPW, according to a letter dated Jan. 6.
As far as the allegations of misconduct go, a representative from DPW was unable to verify whether these claims by some of the families were substantiated or unsubstantiated.
In a letter addressed to The Sentinel, Mifflin County CYS Director Mackenzie Seiler said there were areas of "improvement identified, however the accusations of scandal and corruption were not substantiated."
"The health and welfare of our children must be guarded," Kodish said.
Seiler and Kodish have known each other for many years, as Kodish once coached Seiler when she played basketball in high school. Neither felt this was a conflict of interest and said they are professionals who focus on their individual roles in serving the people of Mifflin County.
Many families who have come forward to the media with accusations of misconduct have said they feared reprisal by CYS and that's why they reached out to Benninghoff and Corman.
Seiler further states in her letter that "it was clearly presented to all parties present that the results (of the investigation) were what (DPW) would expect to find in any child welfare agency across the state if they conducted a thorough investigation of those offices such as was done with our agency."
Erick Kiehl, Director of Communications for DPW, said in speaking with inspectors who compiled the report on Mifflin County CYS, those issues identified as areas to improve upon were not out of the ordinary and are similar to what one would expect to find in other counties.
Seiler said some of the accusations made by people in the community included the notion that CYS was somehow profiting from putting children in foster care, which she sternly denied.
Seiler said CYS receives federal, state and local funding which is overseen by DPW. When a child is placed in a foster home, CYS goes through three foster agencies and always tries to place the child locally, she said. However, Seiler acknowledges there are problems with placing those children with special needs locally, because the resources to help them simply don't exist in Mifflin County.
Seiler said DPW conducted an independent investigation, including interviewing families, and her office cooperated fully by providing all the documentation the agency requested. She said the results of the DPW report led to citations that were in some instances the result of an error made by a caseworker regarding data entry, while others were more serious errors.
The DPW report also cited the need to decrease caseloads; however Mifflin County remains well below the state limit of maximum cases a caseworker can handle.
Seiler said the caseload in Mifflin County is similar to that of a county of equal size and she feels it is manageable for her caseworkers.
When fully staffed, Seiler oversees 14 caseworkers who work in three different areas: intake, in-home and placement. New caseworkers have to be approved by the state and there is a six-month lag time in appointments. They are required to have a bachelors degree as well as some specialized training, she explained.
Seiler said she asked for another caseworker position but the request was denied by DPW, despite their assessment on the need to decrease caseloads. She said turnover among caseworkers occurs because sometimes there is no room for advancement at the agency, so employees seek other job opportunities.
"Sometimes people just burn out or find a position elsewhere," she said.
Seiler said DPW conducts random inspections often, and CYS always provides them with whatever files they request from the agency.
As far as the complaints forwarded to Benninghoff's office go, Seiler said people were able to band together on social networks to voice their frustration.
"They know each other, one way or another," Seiler said, adding that the group's message was "if you want your kids back, jump on board."
To that end, Seiler said more often than not parents simply don't want to do all they need to get their children back - and in some unfortunate instances, even those who do everything they are supposed to are simply unfit to be parents.
"We base our judgment calls on facts not just our personal opinion," Seiler said.
Seiler noted that CYS uses not just the facts gathered on a first-hand basis from caseworkers but from other professionals as well, such as psychologists. She said she understands that families sometimes feel as if they are being "put under a microscope," but every allegation brought forth before CYS has to be investigated.
Benninghoff said he understands that every claim has to be investigated, but what is also important is how caseworkers go about investigating these claims and how they approach and treat these families.
"Families should be treated with dignity and respect," he said.
Benninghoff said to help Mifflin County CYS modernize their approach, two specialists are being brought in from the University of Pittsburgh who will help the agency address the issues brought forth by DPW.
"The goal is to have a good outcome here, these are difficult cases. One way or another these kids have to be taken care of, their needs have to be met," Benninghoff said.
Seiler said a common misperception in the community is that when a CYS caseworker knocks on the door, they are there to take your children.
"It's not true," she said.
Seiler, who has two children of her own, isn't sure how or why this negative perception came about, but one of her goals is to increase family engagement.
"We want to work with families," Seiler said.
Seiler said caseworkers have to go to court on a regular basis and present what they have done in an attempt to reunite a family, while always putting what is best for the child at the forefront.
Seiler said reunification with the family is always the first goal and if that's not possible, then CYS tries to place the children with relatives.
Seiler said "best practices" is something she would like to expand upon. A good example of this would be that family visitation rights for children should be expanded to include more contact, instead of the legal minimum of two visitations a month.
As this Plan of Correction is put in place, DPW will be monitoring Mifflin County CYS's progress, Seiler said.
"We have directed Mifflin County CYS to continue to work hard on achieving the best possible results in all cases, and we are confident that those results will be achieved," Kodish said. "DPW has pledged to assist Mifflin County CYS by performing program evaluations, conducting site visits, and participating in the development and implementation of an action plan that will create an improved CYS department. We are grateful to DPW for their guidance and support."