During a seemingly routine audit, Auditor General Eugene A. DePasquale found troubling numbers for ChildLine, Pennsylvania’s 24-hour child-abuse hotline. All reports of child abuse made in Pennsylvania go through ChildLine, and the service is critical to saving kids’ lives. But DePasquale found that 58,000 calls—22% of child abuse reports—went unanswered between Jan. 1, 2014, and June 30, 2016. The biggest reason was chronic understaffing, an ongoing problem in the world of child welfare.
“Childline was a disaster,” DePasquale recalled. “That was my first major audit dealing with the protection of children, and it led me to write the State of the Child report to try to wake up the elected leadership of Pennsylvania as to what was happening with child protection all over the state.”
DePasquale was elected to his first term as auditor general in 2013, after serving three terms in the House of Representatives. In 2017, he became the first Pennsylvania auditor general to release a report that focused on children. State of the Child revealed cracks in the child welfare system that had been growing for years. While caseworkers at county Children and Youth Services (CYS) agencies were passionate and committed, they burned out quickly from long hours, low pay, and dangerous job duties. As a result, CYS agencies faced an extreme shortage of skilled workers to handle growing caseloads.
DePasquale found the staffing crisis surfaced following the Jerry Sandusky child-sex-abuse scandal that shook Pennsylvania in 2011. In an effort to update outdated child protection measures in the wake of Sandusky, state legislators passed 24 pieces of legislation that amended the Child Protective Services Law and changed the way child abuse is reported and handled in Pennsylvania.
It was a big win for child advocates, except the legislation did not come with additional resources to hire more staffers. Existing caseworkers struggled to keep up with new demands, such as filling out between two and five hours’ worth of paperwork for every 45 minutes of time spent with a family. On top of that, Pennsylvania’s advancing opioid crisis led to more dangerous situations for children and an increase in the number of babies born addicted, which in turn increased the burden on workers.
“[I coach baseball] and I get to hear what the young men have to say. When I talk about child protection workers to my Legion baseball players, they tell me point-blank they’d rather work at Starbucks than do that job. That speaks to the absolute challenge of recruiting people,” DePasquale said.
The consequences of the staffing shortfalls are huge. In 2016 alone, 46 children died and 79 nearly died from abuse and neglect. Of these 125 children, nearly half had been involved with the child welfare system, indicating that many of these tragedies could have been prevented if county CYS agencies had had the resources to monitor each case more carefully.
But there is hope on the horizon. Following his ChildLine audit, DePasquale was able to convince the Pennsylvania General Assembly that the hotline needed budgetary help to implement better technology and hire more workers to answer the phones. Since then, the call error rate dropped from 25 percent to below 2 percent.
He has also outlined a series of steps that need to take place in order to do a better job attracting, supporting, and retaining caseworkers. These include better training for staff, more competitive pay, less paperwork, and better coordination with law enforcement to ensure that caseworkers feel safe performing job duties that are often dangerous and unpredictable.
DePasquale was elected to his second term as Auditor General in January 2017. In addition to continuing his role as a fiscal watchdog for Pennsylvania taxpayers, he will continue to fight on behalf of children by improving the system intended to protect them.
“Every kid deserves an equal chance,” DePasquale said. “Now, we need to work in a bipartisan way on some of the commonsense solutions that can be done to make sure [all children] get that.”
Five Questions for Auditor General Eugene A. DePasquale
As a kid, what career did you see yourself pursuing?
I wanted to be a major league baseball player. Now I coach, so I still get to throw the ball out a little bit, swing the bat a little bit.
What on-the-job moment had the biggest impact on you?
There have been a lot, but finding out that Blair County had to hire two new caseworkers because of the amount of kids being born addicted [to opioids] was pretty important to me.
What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
Reducing the number of untested rape kits in Pennsylvania, improving ChildLine, and auditing school districts to help them avoid raising taxes.
What drives your work on behalf of children?
As a dad, you hope that every parent cares for and loves their kid. You find out doing some of this work that not every parent necessarily does do that. There’s a lot of kids that don’t have a loving home, good nourishment, and a safe environment.
Any plans for the future?
I want to keep being the best public official I can be and get better every single day.