Commissioners Announce Groundbreaking Change for OYFS

Lackawanna County Commissioners Bill Gaughan and Matt McGloin today announced the creation of an innovative, groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind initiative
to create a public-health approach to better serve vulnerable families and children
while saving millions of dollars for county taxpayers.

In a press conference at the Lackawanna County Government Center, the commissioners announced that the county will not seek state certification for the Lackawanna County Department of Health. Instead, the commissioners will redirect
some of that agency’s resources to the county Department of Human Services, focusing on the Office of Youth and Family Services.

The new program, which is supported strongly by the Shapiro administration, is Family First Community Pathways.

When Gaughan and McGloin took office Jan. 2, they faced major problems regarding the Department of Health and the Office of Youth and Family Services.

Department of Health
The county Department of Health was born amid the COVID-19 crisis. After it became clear that no mechanism was in place to collect data regarding the disease’s local impact, the county moved to create a full-service health department. It took preliminary organizational steps in July 2020 and the state Department of Health authorized it to proceed in March 2021.

State Sen. Marty Flynn of Lackawanna County and members of the state legislative delegation secured $4 million in state American Rescue Plan funds, with which the county acquired the former PennFED Credit Union Building on Franklin Avenue. The county contributed another $1 million to buy the building and has spent about $1.8 million on renovations.

The Health Department project proceeded under an assumption that the state government would reimburse the county for 80% of its operating costs, but the county did not conduct a feasibility study that would test that assumption.

Upon taking office, Gaughan and McGloin hired the Scranton law firm of Myers, Brier & Kelly to conduct the due diligence necessary to determine the actual financial impact on the county government and taxpayers. That investigation determined that
the reimbursement rate would be well below 80%, leaving county taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars a year.

The fully staffed department’s annual budget is $4.7 million.

Meanwhile, the county has a structural deficit of more than $15 million a year.

Due to the financial impact, the commissioners have decided not to seek full state certification of a free-standing health department.

Youth and Family Services
In May 2023, the state Department of Human Services placed the Lackawanna County Office of Youth and Family Services on a provisional license due to a major backlog of referrals and related matters.

In June 2023, the Lackawanna County district attorney’s office filed criminal charges against five OYFS caseworkers and supervisors, charging that they had failed to protect children in three Scranton families. A Lackawanna County judge dismissed those charges, and the district attorney has appealed that decision.

Gaughan and McGloin, soon after taking office, hired consultant Bev Mackereth, a former state secretary of human services, to assess the local office’s problems and recommend solutions.

The OYFS is badly understaffed, with 50 vacant positions, 30 of which are for caseworkers. Through an all-hands-on-deck effort, the office has managed to reduce the referral backlog from nearly 900 in January, to about 700 now.

In an effort to reduce that backlog and improve services, the office has hired three new full-time caseworkers and the commissioners have authorized the creation of six part-time positions to help alleviate the burden on full-time staff.

Also, the state Department of Human Services has approved the office’s plan to increase overtime, use other county staff, enlist help from other counties’ OYFS offices, and otherwise accelerate the effort to reduce the backlog.

But the process also demonstrated that the county could not resolve the fundamental problems affecting OYFS by wrestling with the system as it exists.

As they worked on both problems, the commissioners, their consultants and staff, came to realize that resolving the DOH issue could lead to a better model for OYFS. That led to the innovative program that the commissioners announced Thursday.

Family First Community Pathways
The program, Family First Community Pathways, is an elegant solution to the combined Department of Health/Office of Youth and Family Services issues.

It resolves the financial issues regarding the Health Department without sacrificing the county government’s commitment to public health. The commissioners will create an Office of Public Health within the Department of Human Services, that will focus on identifying and helping vulnerable families to help ensure that they do not end up in the child welfare system. It will employ community-based social service providers to assist those families on matters such as housing, nutrition, health care, violence prevention, child maltreatment, maternal and infant health and safety, and more. OYFS will become involved only when those efforts prove to be inadequate.

To facilitate the new program, many employees of the Department of Health have been offered the opportunity to work within the public health framework of the Family First Community Pathways Project.

The project was made possible by the federal Family First Prevention Act, which treats child welfare as an urgent public health matter and seeks to prevent the placement of children in foster care while promoting family stability. The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services was approved last year to participate in the program.

In all, this is an exciting opportunity to vastly improve the lives of vulnerable families in children in Lackawanna County while delivering value for taxpayers.

Commissioners Press Conference Statement

Community Pathways Family First Presentation

Community Pathways Proposal

Media 2 - Copy