Friday, August 19, 2016
NorCo Coping With Record Number of Child Abuse Reports
Kevin Dolan is a long distance runner. After being diagnosed with a weak heart many years, he hit the pavement and even began entering local races. He never wins. But he understands that the real victory is in the effort. He has applied that same effort for the past 42 years in one of government's most vital roles - helping children in crisis. He is Director of Northampton County's Children, Youth and Families (CYF) division, where he oversees a 125-person staff with a $32 million budget. Unfortunately, he's very busy. He provided a glimpse into his world at Council's August 18 meeting.
Among other things, The Jerry Sandusky scandal resulted in 23 new child abuse laws. These require professionals to report any suspicion of abuse, even if they just hear about it. Failure to do so is a felony. So Dolan's office has been deluged with a record number of calls, and is on track to receive 6,000 complaints this year, when the average is closer to 4,000. Though most calls turn out to be unfounded or minor, Dolan noted that it "has caught some of those serious cases that we might not have seen before."
Like a three-week old baby who is murdered. Or nine-month old toddler who is strangled and hit on the head.
Dolan told Council that the heroin and opioid epidemic is also having a big impact on his office. It is "so prevalent in the County, and in places we've never, ever been." He said even people with higher incomes "can't keep up with payments" for ten bags of heroin a day, and ignoring their children. "That is keeping us running full tilt," he said.
He told Council that caseworkers are placed in "very dangerous" situations when responding to drug users because the stability of the parent is an unknown. He mentioned one recent case involving a parent who had been smoking meth for 30 days straight. A Hazmat team had to be called because the smoke leeches into everything. Dolan's caseworkers had to be detoxed and a local hospital burned the clothing they were wearing and sent them home in scrubs.
Acknowledging that being a caseworker is stressful, Dolan indicated that most of them burn out after two years. He currently has six vacancies.
Though his office is busier than it's ever been, Dolan indicated that he has relatively few children - 248 - in placement right now. That costs about $17,000 per day. Some children with special needs, like an adolescent who was routinely swallowing flashlight batteries, must be watched 24 hours per day.
Though the number of children in placement is relatively low, he said that can change in a heartbeat. One recent weekend drug sweep resulted in 14 placements. "Every time you hear of drug sweep, ask yourself how many kids are in those homes," he suggested.
There are two reasons for the decrease in placements, Dolan claimed. One of these is a new practice called family group decision making, in which the entire family is challenged to come up with a plan under which they will get their children back. “If you make the plan you're more willing to follow it," he observed. The other is a concept called prudent parenting, which gives foster parents more flexibility in what children can do. At one time, a child who wanted to play soccer or go to the beach needed court permission. Foster parents can now make those decisions themselves.
About 90% of the cost of CYF is paid by the state.
And just like volunteer coaches, Dolan and his staff must go extensive background checks every two years.