LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) — State lawmakers from our region are raising questions about the system that is supposed to protect children. This comes after the former director of Luzerne County Children and Youth Services was arrested last week for allegedly sweeping hundreds of reports of child abuse and neglect under the rug.

The arrest of Joanne Van Saun stunned parents, CYS employees and county officials after all, she was the person who was trusted to protect children in the county. Especially children who may be at risk.

“The child welfare system is wrought with inadequacies and is very broken,” said Rep. Tarah Toohil, (R) 116th district.

State Representative Tarah Toohil says that must change. She sent a letter to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro expressing concerns about the operations of Luzerne County Children and Youth Services. 

According to court documents, Van Saun ordered staff to delete 217 reports of abuse and neglect that were part of a backlog in May of 2017. At that time Luzerne County had nearly 1,400 outstanding referrals and was operating on a provisional license.

“So, if the attorney general is going to be responsible for finding out where these children are. Have they been taken out of harm’s way? Have their cases been investigated? We want to make sure that none of these children fall through the cracks,” Toohil said.

State Senator Lisa Baker is calling for a full investigation into Luzerne County CYS, as well as the entire child welfare system. She is sponsoring legislation that would create an interbranch commission that would bring together every agency — any person involved in protecting children in Pennsylvania.

“The bottom-line for me is what happened to all of these children that supposedly were swept under the rug. We need to get answers specifically about those children, but it raises the broader issue. We’ve been seeing the number of years how are children being protected in our child welfare system?” said Sen. Lisa baker (R) 20th district.

The Department of Human Services released the following statement to Eyewitness News:

“The Department of Human Services (DHS) is deeply concerned about the allegations announced recently by the Attorney General against the former director of Luzerne County Children and Youth Services. DHS, which licenses county agencies that administer child welfare services, has begun an investigation to understand the scope of these alleged failings. If the investigation determines that enforcement action is necessary to protect children in Luzerne County and correct any deficiencies within the county’s child welfare system, DHS will take any and all appropriate steps to do so.

In Pennsylvania, child welfare is a county administered and state supervised system. DHS operates a 24/7 hotline available to anyone concerned about the welfare of a child and to report suspected child abuse. ChildLine can be reached at 1-800-932-0313. Mandated reporters are encouraged to use the self-service portal on the Keep Kids Safe website. Permissive reporters may report anonymously. Reports of suspected abuse are processed by ChildLine caseworkers and referred to appropriate agencies for investigation. Investigating agencies can be county child welfare offices or regional DHS offices. Every allegation of child abuse reported to ChildLine is investigated.

CPS reports are reports that meet the definition of child abuse contained in the Child Protective Services Law, while GPS reports indicate that the child or family may require follow-up or additional supportive services, but the case does not meet the threshold of abuse defined in the Child Protective Services Law. County agencies cannot screen out CPS reports processed by ChildLine. Only GPS reports can be screened out at the county level prior to any investigative work.

As part of the annual inspection process, the DHS Office of Children, Youth and Families (OCYF) examines samples of CPS and GPS reports. If deficiencies are discovered, then a corrective plan is developed in collaboration with the county. OCYF also conducts inspections in response to complaints. To build consistency among counties in GPS screen-outs and clarify the department’s expectations of counties’ regulatory responsibilities on GPS screen-outs, OCYF issued the attached bulletin in October 2020.”

Luzerne County made the following statement to Eyewitness News:

“Nothing is more important than the health and safety of the children entrusted in our county Children & Youth Services department’s care. We pledge to continue cooperating fully with the Pennsylvania Attorney General and any additional law enforcement authorities investigating this heartbreaking matter. Our primary concern remains the safety and welfare of Luzerne County children and families.”

Luzerne County Council Chairman Tim McGinley says regaining the public’s trust in CYS is a top priority.

“I hope our goal is at some point in time once the attorney general investigation is complete, we will be able to do our own investigation to back up all the information.”

Three other Luzerne County Children and Youth employees can no longer serve as mandated reporters of child abuse because of this investigation.

Eyewitness News reached out to the state attorney general’s office for comment on this report, we have not yet heard back.