Friday, September 23, 2011

'I will find out what went wrong'

Back in January, when a 15-month-old girl died in Point Marion, in a case where criticism was levied at Fayette County Children and Youth Services, someone had this to say:

"I will assure the people of Fayette County there will be accountability. I will work on it and I will find out what went wrong, and we will do everything we can to hopefully prevent future incidents of this kind."

The person who made that statement to Channel 4 Action News in Pittsburgh, described in its broadcast as "Fayette County's highest elected official," was Commission Chairman Vincent Zapotosky.

Here in the patch, you will recall that back in June, six months after he made that statement, we asked when Zapotosky was going to reveal the results of his investigation. As a commissioner -- and to be fair, he is one of three -- Zapotosky is in charge of all county departments, and the operations of CYS are clearly within his managerial purview.

Last week, Zapotosky and Fayette County CYS were in the news again -- this time, regarding the death of a 4-year-old boy from Springhill Township. As in the first case, CYS is under fire for alleged inaction even though reports of abuse were made to the agency.

Zapotosky was in the news again, this time telling the Tribune-Review his solution will be to seek help from state and federal officials. Note to Zapotosky: It is called the Fayette County CYS, not the U.S. CYS or the Pennsylvania CYS. It is not up to state or federal officials to run this agency, it is up to you, as a county commissioner, to perform that duty.

The same elected official who in January said, "I will work on it and I will find out what went wrong, and we will do everything we can to hopefully prevent future incidents of this kind," apparently did not work on it and did not find out what went wrong. He certainly was unable to prevent future incidents of this kind.

Now, Zapotosky tells the Tribune-Review, "When you bury two children in less than 12 months, it's not a number. It's a crisis."

It was a crisis back in January, too. And it's too bad that no one in the local media was able or willing to ask Zapotosky about the progress of the investigation that he promised to mount nearly nine months ago.

Now, in order to deal with the current crisis, Zapotosky is falling back on an all-too-familiar refrain in Fayette County government. He is blaming budget cuts at higher levels for contributing to the problem. "CYS is under mandated requirements of the state, but we've had cuts in funding. It's created additional hardships on our staffing," he tells the Tribune-Review.

Before you go swallowing that explanation hook, line and sinker, remember that the county commissioners can hire as many CYS staffers as they deem necessary. They don't have to predicate the staffing level based on how much state subsidy they receive for CYS operations.

In the Tribune-Review story, ("Deaths of two Fayette County children declared 'crisis', " Sept. 16), Zapotosky says part of the problem is that fact that CYS has only 20 caseworkers and 900 active cases. That averages out to 45 cases per caseworker. That may be high, low or average. But we don't know because no one in the media has done any comparative analysis of what the average caseload per caseworker is in other counties.

To be fair, CYS has a difficult job. It is possible that nothing could have been done to avert these two tragedies. But when something this tragic happens twice in a span of several months, those seeking a suitable explanation deserve more than a passing of the buck -- and thus any blame -- to the state and federal levels.