Luzerne County Children and Youth director vacancy raises concerns

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | December 31st, 2015 4:03 pm

Krista McIlhaney’s resignation as Luzerne County Children and Youth executive director took effect Thursday, and a county official worries the process of finding her replacement will drag out too long.

Ray Whalen, a member of the county Children and Youth Advisory Board for 18 months, told the county council earlier this week it took nearly a year to seek and hire McIlhaney.

The county should not be without a Children and Youth director that long again, he said. He also pointed out two other human service agencies have no executive directors — the Agency on Aging and Mental Health. These three agencies have combined budgets of over $87 million.

Teresa Osborne left the Aging director position in January 2015 for a promotion to secretary of the state Department of Aging. Mental Health Administrator James Davis retired April 30.

Representatives of the Aging advisory board had complained in October about county delays finding a new executive director for that agency.

“You need to do something about the system, and I think that falls on council,” Whalen said. “It’s not working in human service delivery.”

Whalen also said a newspaper advertisement listed the Children and Youth administrator position as a salary of $61,000, while the online amount is $68,000.

McIlhaney, who left after a little over a year on the job to accept another position, was making $78,000, he said.

Her successor faces challenges. The state downgraded the agency’s license to provisional status in October, citing “serious concerns” and “regulatory violations” discovered through inspections sparked by a child’s death. The county and state largely blamed staffing shortages and enacted a corrective plan that includes intensified recruiting of caseworkers to fill numerous vacancies.

Whalen also pointed out that Children and Youth still has a high number of caseworker openings, despite success filling some positions through a special emergency hiring procedure coordinated by state officials.

“The staff morale is low,” Whalen said.

Council Chairwoman Linda McClosky Houck told Whalen she and her colleagues sympathize with his concerns, but the council is prohibited from interfering with executive branch hiring decisions and day-to-day operations under the home rule charter. The council approves the budget and allocated funds to ensure all vacant Children and Youth positions can be filled, she said.

McClosky Houck advised Whalen to address his concerns with county Human Services Division Head David Schwille, who was in the audience at Tuesday’s meeting.

Schwille said the county received around 100 applications for Children and Youth executive director by the Dec. 11 application deadline, but most were not qualified.

Human resources is in the process of compiling a list of applicants eligible for the position, he said. That list must then be sent to the state Civil Service Commission to verify eligibility before applicants are interviewed by a team, he said.

Schwille said it will take time for one person in human resources to screen 100 applications.

Whalen urged Schwille to include some advisory board representatives in the selection process, saying prior commissioners relied heavily on input from the board before the switch to home rule. He said this request was conveyed to the administration, but the board received no response.

Schwille has said aging director finalists would be interviewed in December. The administration was in the process of hiring a mental health deputy director but still reviewing options for the director position in that agency.

As division head, Schwille is responsible for managing operations in human service branches when they have no directors.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.