The Washington County Children and Youth Services agency may have received a favorable review this year from the state Department of Public Welfare, but the judge who oversees CYS court cases was “shocked and flabbergasted” when he learned of the evaluation.
“Protecting children is the primary goal,” Judge John DiSalle said in an interview last week. “My issue is that the agency is not protecting children and making decisions that don’t serve the best interest of children.”
DiSalle discussed the matter after the Observer-Reporter requested and received copies of correspondence about CYS under the state’s “Right to Know” law.
The judge has been critical of both the agency and a Department of Public Welfare review, writing to a state official in a four-page letter about:
n An infant who suffered bilateral fractures. The child, the judge maintains, would have had better supervision through an active court case.
n A 16-year-old “who was preyed upon and became pregnant to a 52-year-old Megan’s Law offender while on an agency safety plan. ... I now know that the agency was aware that (the girl) and her sisters were being preyed upon by the same Megan’s Law offender since 2004, when she would have been 10 years old.”
n A case in February where two children were found locked in the bedroom of their home in horrific conditions in a state of starvation. The case had been opened and closed by the agency several times previously and was last closed in June 2011, even though the children were not healthy and the father had been previously subject to involuntary termination (of parental rights related to) another child.
After one child escaped through a window and was found wandering in the street, Monongahela police went to the New Eagle home, and the parents, Edward John Buckholz, 33, and Roxanne Nicole Taylor, 25, were charged with numerous crimes, including aggravated assault and child endangerment.
The judge, in the March letter, zeroed in on a decline in the number of dependency cases, where abused and neglected children are placed under court supervision, claiming that it was an attempt by CYS to “artificially control its budget.” The number of dependency cases was down to 101 in 2011 compared with more than 300 in 2009. This trend has been reversed in 2012, with 118 cases filed so far this year, DiSalle said.
In what it called an “intensive case review,” DPW officials interviewed 20 people, including DiSalle, county Human Services Director Tim Kimmel, CYS Director Lori Harbert and several caseworkers and supervisors about five specific cases.
But DiSalle told DPW Deputy Secretary Beverly D. Mackereth in a letter, “What is perhaps most insulting about your report” is that there needs to be a trusting, working relationship between the court and the agency.
“Since your report has vindicated the agency by disregarding everything the (juvenile) master and I have reported ... the only inference that can be drawn is that the problem is with the court, that the court must have cut these allegations out of whole cloth. If the reviewers could find no evidence of deception by the agency ... how can we work on trust?”
Mackereth said in an interview Thursday that when she learned of DiSalle’s concerns, she called him “the second I got it. That is not a full review by any stretch of the imagination. It was only based on a few questions we were asked to look at in a few cases. We were only asked to look at certain issues, not the whole picture. Since that time, there has been a licensing review done.”
The CYS licensing review is more intensive, but the latest one in Washington County is not yet complete. Mackereth said the intent of the licensing review is to determine if CYS is “keeping kids safe. Are they meeting the child well-being indicators?”
DiSalle initially relayed his concerns to the county commissioners in November, telling them that in the previous 10 months, he found CYS making “no reasonable efforts” in at least six cases involving more than 15 children.
“What is more disturbing, rather than do anything to change their practices in order to comply with the court, our agency has appealed four of those cases.” The judge accused the agency of developing “into a culture of deception.”
“I can’t change the management,” said DiSalle, who began hearing CYS cases in January 2011 after the death of Judge Mark Mascara. “I can suggest. I can make them follow my court order. I can’t run the agency. I can only handle one case at a time and hope they are doing the right thing.”
Despite his strong words, DiSalle also said he did not intend to be critical of CYS caseworkers.
“We have a lot of good caseworkers and good supervisors,” the judge said. “My frustration is with the administration of CYS.”
Kimmel in February acknowledged the state’s review of five court cases dealing with child abuse or neglect, Anne Bale, spokeswoman for DPW in Harrisburg, said the department’s annual inspection for licensing purposes has not yet been completed.
“It’s a tough job because of the emotional aspect,” Kimmel said Wednesday of the CYS mission. “The state is coming in to assist us in setting up a critical case review process.”
Harbert, meanwhile, said bluntly, “I’m not going to speak to the judge’s letter or the report,” but she did take issue with the judge’s characterization of CYS as fostering a culture of deception.
“I cannot and I have never refused access to my files to attorneys,” she said. “By law, they have access to everything. They can prepare for their cases before court without relying on the agency for everything they want. They can pick up a phone and call a (children’s service) provider any time they want to. The attorneys have access to my caseworkers.”
Harbert allowed that a piece of information might be missing from a case’s court preparation packet but said, “I don’t see what the judge is referencing as intentional deception, but the judge is certainly entitled to his opinion.”
One of the recommendations that the Department of Public Welfare made was hiring a second attorney to represent dependent children in court for Children and Youth Services cases, and Washington County commissioners took action on that Thursday.
Erin Dickerson, appointed by the court to the position of “guardian ad litem,” joins Frank Kocevar in staffing the positions. The salary for each will be $35,000, with Dickerson scheduled to start July 1. A third attorney, Jason Walsh, also was hired Thursday as a contract attorney at a salary of $40,000 to represent CYS in handling adoptions and determination of parental rights.
Meanwhile, Washington County Commission Vice Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan said she and Commissioner Harlan Shober met March 27 with Mackereth during a conference hosted by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
“She did have some concerns,” said Irey Vaughan, who set up a Washington County Children and Youth Task Force at the beginning of the year, which meets monthly.
Mackereth encouraged members of the community to get involved in the task force.
“Eyes and ears on cases are critical on ensuring that we can protect the kids,” she said.