Luzerne County Children and Youth advisory board member questions need for consultant

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | January 18th, 2016 4:15 pm

The continued use of an outside consultant at Luzerne County Children and Youth troubles agency citizen advisory board member Ray Whalen.

Richard Gold, of Philadelphia-based Richard Gold LLC, has received at least $91,000 in payments for consulting work since the end of March 2014, even though his hiring in the fall of 2013 was supposed to be temporary, county records show.

Whalen said he recently met with two employees who have a combined 55 years of experience working in the agency, and they raised concerns that management has been relying too heavily on Gold’s opinions without challenging him and allowing him to oversee some meetings and handle other supervisory work.

“A consultant’s job is to make recommendations to the management. It appears we turned over the keys to the kingdom to a consultant,” said Whalen, a member of the citizen advisory board for 18 months.

Whalen said a consultant wasn’t needed to diagnose the agency’s main problem: Staffing shortages. He also questions the value of a consultant, saying the agency has continued to decline since Gold has been here.

The state downgraded the agency’s license to provisional status in October following a review stemming from the death of a child. The state licensing inspection summary cited “serious concerns regarding agency practice” and “regulatory violations,” identifying staffing shortages as a major cause of the agency’s issues.

“The crux of the problem was vacancies, so we should have been addressing that problem first,” Whalen said.

The agency was budgeted for 108 caseworkers but had 27 vacancies at that time.

After state intervention to help boost applicants, the county recently hired 14 new caseworkers, reducing the number of vacancies to 16, officials said.

Many caseworkers have been juggling 25 cases, compared to the ideal 12 to 14, officials have said.

County Human Services Division Head David Schwille said last week that the administration has kept Gold primarily because he has been assisting with problems in the county’s Children and Youth agency.

A former deputy secretary for the state Department of Public Welfare’s Office of Children Youth and Families, Gold has been receiving $100 per hour to evaluate staff assessments of clients to flag concerns and suggest improvements and teach caseworkers new techniques to assess and work with clients, Schwille said.

Schwille also said Gold has “done a lot to improve caseworker practices” and believes complaints may stem from resistance to implement his new ideas.

Whalen said his interaction with staffers has convinced him they are enthusiastic about improvements that make sense.

“I believe workers are passionate and want to do their job, but if there is resistance, it’s a manager’s job to work with the employees — not a consultant’s job,” Whalen said.

In light of the agency’s struggles, the advisory board released a survey last week to measure the morale and concerns of Children and Youth workers. Whalen stressed a local university will handle the survey and results to ensure employee confidentiality.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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