Major Steps for Child, Family Wellbeing

Commissioners Bill Gaughan and Matt McGloin made another major stride today toward remaking the delivery of services for vulnerable children and families in Lackawanna County, and state Secretary of Human Services Valerie Arkoosh, M.D., strongly endorsed the county’s first-of-its-kind effort to revolutionize family and children welfare services.

“Poverty should not be a cause for child welfare involvement, but families who live in or near poverty may have trouble accessing our most basic, core needs like shelter, food, clothing, transportation, and health care. Proactively identifying these situations creates an opportunity to offer services and support. Working collaboratively, we can help stabilize families in difficult situations and provide the support they need, and their children need to be safe and thrive,” Arkoosh said. “I appreciate the recognition of these challenges that Lackawanna County is demonstrating and the leadership of its commissioners in establishing a public health response that seeks to help, not hinder a family’s progress. I look forward to seeing this initiative grow and how it can help strengthen families and communities in Lackawanna County.”

In their role as the county salary board, McGloin, Gaughan, Commissioner Chris Chermak and Controller Gary DiBileo on Tuesday approved the creation of 12 positions in the county Department of Human Services to help implement the innovative Family First Community Pathways program, including the nine resource navigator positions. The county will seek applicants for two community health nurse positions for the program, and soon will announce the hiring of a program manager.

Family First Community Pathways is a groundbreaking initiative, in partnership with the state Department of Human Services, to create a public health approach to family and child welfare.

The nine new resource navigators who transferred from the Department of Health, who will seek to keep families and children out of the Office of Youth and Family Services system by connecting then with the services that they need, are Mary Foley, Shannon Dunleavy, Kelly McMullen and Claire Perez-Coiscou, Stephen Chwiej, Joseph Farrell, Allison Fisch,  Deanna Kilmer, and Melia Rushton-Bohn. The position’s salary is $40,000.

The Lackawanna County Office of Youth and Family Services has been operating under a provisional state license since May 2023.

Since taking office Jan. 2, Gaughan and McGloin have made a top priority of restoring the state license for OYFS while improving prospects for vulnerable families and children.

While dealing with the OYFS situation, which included a backlog of more than 900 referrals and severe staffing shortages, the commissioners also faced the question of how to fund a new county Department of Health. The department was created under the presumption that the state government would reimburse the county for about 80% of its operating costs, but that proved to be unfounded.

The commissioners decided not to seek state certification for the department, thus disbanding it. Instead, they decided to use some of the public health resources attached to the department to create the Family First Community Pathways approach to serving families and children and bolstering OYFS.

The 12 positions created Tuesday by the salary board enable that public health approach, which is an effort to steer vulnerable families to the services they need so that OYFS intervention will not be necessary. The objective is to keep families and children out of the child welfare system. And, because the positions are housed in the county Department of Human Services, they will be reimbursed by the state at a rate of 80%, according to Barbara Durkin, county acting director of human services.

At the meeting Tuesday, the commissioners approved the nine “navigator” positions to help families get the services they need to resolve their difficulties, improve their situations, and avoid OYFS intervention. They converted an existing vacant position into that of community health nurse, and created a new community health nurse position, each at $50,000. And they created a program manager position at $65,000.

The new positions make it possible for many of the former Department of Health personnel to apply their skill to mitigating the public health emergency inherent in the conditions – poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse, illiteracy, and more – that lead to the need for OYFS services.

Also on Tuesday, the commissioners created an additional six part-time youth and family worker positions in the Office of Youth and Family Services, raising the total to 12, and increased the salary for those positions from $16 an hour to $35 an hour. Those workers handle some administrative tasks and assignments such as transportation for children under OYFS care, freeing OYFS caseworkers for direct casework.

The salary board’s actions and the transfers are just the latest in the commissioners’ all-out effort to improve services and improve the OYFS operation.

Soon after taking office, they hired consultant Bev Mackereth, a former state secretary of human services, to assess the office, devise a plan to reduce its case backlog and create a sustainable plan for the long term.

With the cooperation of the state Department of Human Services, the OYFS has put in place an all-hands-on-deck plan to reduce the case backlog, which has been reduced from about 900 to about 700. The office is in the process of recruiting former OYFS personnel, OYFS workers from other counties, and eligible Lackawanna County employees from other departments to attack the backlog.

“These actions are just the latest manifestation of our iron-clad commitment to resolving the OYFS crisis, not just for the sake of restoring full licensure, but for ensuring that every Lackawanna County family has the chance to succeed,” Gaughan said.

“Healthy families and kids aren’t simply a government prerogative,” McGloin added. “They are the foundation of communities, and this effort calls on the entire community to help stabilize that foundation. We thank our dedicated staff, the Shapiro administration, the former Department of Health employees who are lending their expertise to this effort, and our community partners who are crucial to Community Pathways’ success.”