Tension between police, Lackawanna child welfare agency reported to state last year

Jul. 27—Lackawanna County’s Office of Youth and Family Services alerted state officials last year about tension between the agency and law enforcement, according to a report the county submitted to the state Department of Human Services.

Law enforcement often expressed “personal value judgments” regarding families that led to disagreements over the degree of risk children faced and the role child welfare workers play in investigations, the agency said in an annual budgeting report submitted to DHS.

“These value judgments often cloud conversations surrounding the facts of a child abuse or neglect investigation and lead to further disagreement on situations that are high risk versus unsafe for the child victim,” the report says.

The concerns are outlined in the county’s Needs Based Plan and Budget for fiscal year 2023-2024 — an annual report that all child protection agencies in the state file that, among other things, details challenges they face.

Lackawanna County’s report was submitted in August 2022. Three months later Scranton police launched a criminal investigation into the OYFS after officers found children living in a home filled with rotting garbage and animal feces. That case and others led to the arrest last month of five current and former OYFS employees who are accused of endangering the welfare of children.

The report clearly showed there was a “significant divide” between the child welfare agency and law enforcement that could potentially compromise child abuse and neglect investigations, said Cathleen Palm, founder of The Center for Children’s Justice, a nonprofit agency based in Berks County that advocates for children and families. She’s concerned the arrests further exacerbated the situation.

“Obviously this has reached a different level,” Palm said. “What’s been done to reduce the temperature in the room to make sure that everybody’s on the same page as to how to protect children?”

Lackawanna County officials did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Scranton Police Chief Thomas Carroll said he’s confident the arrests have not compromised the department’s ability to work with caseworkers.

“We continue to collaborate on child welfare investigations to ensure the safety of children,” Carroll said. “We are all professionals focused on our mission of protecting children. Period.”

The needs based budget report notes the OYFS hosted a training session last year for law enforcement that focused on the agency’s responsibilities, including evidentiary standards and mandated reporting. Scranton was among 14 police departments that took part in the training.

Palm commended the agency for that effort. She encouraged the county to reach out to DHS and other agencies such as the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association or the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to act as a “referee” and help resolve issues.

“Someone needs to step in,” she said. “We really need to sit down, have a conversation and make sure that there is nothing here that is impacting the safety and the quality of what’s happening for children in Lackawanna County.”

Contact the writer: tbesecker@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9137; @tmbeseckerTT on Twitter.

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