Removing kids from troubled homes: Are child welfare agencies doing enough?

Ciara Meyer was the victim of a gunshot.

Officially, she was shot when her father got in a front-door confrontation with a constable.

The family doesn’t blame the constable for protecting himself from a rifle-wielding parent, but the family does feel Ciara was victimized by a system that failed her.

They say they repeatedly notified Children and Youth agencies (first Dauphin County then Perry County) about instability in the house. The agencies, they say, didn’t listen and returned Ciara to that instability.

It must be a heart-wrenching and difficult decision to tear a family apart and remove children from their homes.

Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick, who oversees human services, says child safety is the top priority when making those decisions, but he says research shows the more a kid is moved, the more likely they’ll struggle. So yes, there is a premium put on keeping kids in their homes.

“The best-case scenario would be with the parents or kin,” Hartwick said. “To ensure that future trauma is not created as a result of a kid already going through things that they didn’t ask for.”

But not every parent is a best-case scenario.

“She has a lot of drug problems and she wasn’t fit to be around in the house,” Lisa Snyder said of her daughter.

Snyder had custody of her two grandsons because her daughter struggled with addiction. She says Dauphin County Children and Youth threatened her if she didn’t bring the boys to their mother.

“They want the children to be around a drug addict, a drunk, even if they’re still using? No. No, why would you do that?” Snyder asks.

Snyder has since adopted the boys, ages 8 and 3. They’re hers now, but Lisa is still bitter about her encounters with Dauphin County CYS.

“They have people in there who are not qualified. They may have a college degree but they have not worked with drug addicts. Why would you put a child with a drug addict for a visit?” Snyder said.

Hartwick says reports of abuse have skyrocketed while funding from the state has not kept pace. He says more money is needed.

“To stop the high level of turnover that has occurred because of the extraordinarily high caseloads, very intense work and generally low pay for people who are required to have a Masters degree,” Hartwick said.

But others insist money is not the biggest problem.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, Dennis, and I’m fed up with watching preventable deaths of children,” said Carlisle Attorney Jason Kutulakis.

Kutulakis was on the Governor’s Task Force on Child Protection which pushed more than 20 new laws onto the books. He bristles when he hears the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services suggest that child protection is handled at the county level and that its purpose is oversight and guidance.

“It’s a cop out to say we’re just a licensing forum,” Kutulakis said. “That’s garbage.”

Kutulakis says billions of dollars are spent on child welfare in Pennsylvania. The money is there, he says, but the training and leadership at the state level is not. He insists taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth.

While heartbroken to see stories like Ciara Meyer’s, Kutulakis hopes the loss of a beautiful 12-year-old girl will be a catalyst.

“It is the high-profile cases that make change like Sandusky or the deaths of children.”

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