Maxine Williams was returned to her biological parents in Sunbury at the age of 6, after spending five years in foster care.

The decision by Northumberland County officials, she says, sparked a decade of misery that ended only when she was removed from the home a second time at age 17.

“My first memory is of being locked in a room with a bottle of sour milk, kicking at the walls because I was so hungry,” Williams, now 28, recalled. “Other memories I’ve blocked out because I was in ‘survival mode.’ Now I’m in ‘living mode.’”

Today, the newly married Williams is working in the mental health field where she’s helping others battle with the effects of being raised in emotionally or physically abusive households.

Across Pennsylvania, there are thousands of children living out similar nightmares and hundreds of social workers scrambling to save them while simultaneously working to keep families united and children protected.

Post-Sandusky

Child care experts across the state agree new state Child Protective Service laws enacted in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex child abuse scandal that expanded the definition of child abuse and obligated more people to report their suspicions have helped raised awareness.

But they have also overwhelmed the system with a higher number of cases to investigate.

In 2015, 40,590 cases of suspected child abuse were reported in Pennsylvania, an increase of more than 11,000 allegations from a year earlier. Of those reports, 4,230 cases, or 10 percent, were substantiated and about half involved sexual abuse.

All but 5,000 or so of the allegations were brought to the attention of authorities by mandated reporters, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

Children and Youth Services (CYS) is required to investigate each allegation and to address each substantiated claim, a job made more difficult for some agencies by the lack of additional funding and high staff turnover.

At the same time, widespread drug and alcohol abuse are splintering families and putting more children at risk.

Even volunteers with the Court Appointed Special Advocates, an organization that provides volunteers to speak for abused and neglected children caught up in the judicial system, are inundated with cases and unable to keep up.

Katrina Gownley left a teaching position to return to Northumberland County CYS as its administrator last October, following a seven-year absence. She returned to discover the agency’s staff so overwhelmed with abuse and neglect cases that the state Department of Welfare has intervened.

With an astonishing 200 children in foster care, the state has ordered the county to reduce that number by at least half this year. By comparison, similar-sized Lycoming County has 50 kids in foster care.

“I was disappointed,” said Gownley about discovering that several family-strengthening practices like Family Preservation and Group Decision Making that were in place when she worked there had been eliminated or significantly reduced.

Northumberland County President Judge Charles Saylor had a similar response.

“I was floored. Those were the main services to restore families,” he said.

Gownley attributes new state mandatory reporting laws and increased awareness of child abuse for some of the cuts that led to the rise of children being placed outside the home for abuse or neglect. To handle the rising number of abuse reports and demands on staff, the CYS had to employ resources elsewhere, she said.

While the new laws might have helped shine a light on the hardship many children are facing, she said, lawmakers failed to provide additional funding for staff and other resources to handle what has been a higher volume of calls of alleged child abuse or neglect.

“We’re handling an 85 percent increase in (reported abuse cases) with the same number of staff,” Snyder County CYS Administrator Rose Weir said.

Saylor is bringing in a senior judge to help move dependency cases quicker through the system, as Gownley takes steps to reduce the number of children in foster care to at least 100 by the end of the summer.

Her solution is to revive and to increase the use of preventative services being used across the state like Family Group Decision Making and Family Finding, which requires social workers to locate friends and relatives who are familiar to an at risk-child and might be able to assist the child and keep families intact, and visitation coaching to aid parents in positive interactions with their children.

Gownley’s 2017-18 budget includes funding for five new positions, two of which she will assign to Family Finding services to help keep children out of the foster system and one new position to deal with truancy.

She is also resurrecting a team approach to addressing at-risk children’s needs by convening a steering committee composed of school, court, mental health, aging and probation officials who meet monthly.

‘Best plan for the child’

Taking a team approach and maintaining a stable workforce are helping many CYS agencies keep cases manageable, a difficult task in today’s environment.

In Crawford County, CYS staff turnover is a problem that affects employees and families they work with, said Kelly Schwab, assistant director of Human Services. Of the 30 CYS employees, caseworkers frequently juggle 10 to 12 ongoing cases each while intake workers who conduct the initial investigation of abuse routinely have between 15 to 25 cases at a time.

“My wish list would be if we could stop the turnover,” she said. “I won’t say we’d do better, but it would be a better outcome. There would be more stability for the families.”

Both Snyder and Union counties’ CYS agencies have a stable staff of caseworkers, which has helped keep out-of-home placements from rising. Currently, both counties oversee 22 children in foster care.

Matthew Ernst, who has been with the Union County agency since 2001 and administrator since 2009, said there’s been a major push in the past several years to include support systems like pastors, coaches, youth leaders and neighbors — “anyone who has positive existing relationships with those children” — to assist struggling families and come up the best plan for the child.

“The general philosophy is if they come up with the decisions and the planning, they’re more likely to follow it than someone telling them that’s what they need to do,” Ernst said. “It’s a plan that, hopefully, they have more motivation to follow.”

There’s also more effort being made statewide to place children in foster care with relatives or friends rather than strangers.

“Family is broadly defined in Pennsylvania,” said Weir, Snyder County’s CYS administrator. “It could be close friends and neighbors.”

Foster parents are also now more involved in the decision-making and are asked to mentor parents to improve visitations and the likelihood of family unification.

The judicial system is doing more to find the best solution for children as well. In the past, the family would have one court date every six months, but now it’s every three months, allowing better communication and understanding between family court judges and family members.

As a result, Ernst said, “The whole court system is much more engaging to the family, much more engaging to the children.

Fewer placements with strangers

Cindy Knight, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Crawford County, an organization that provides volunteers to speak for abused and neglected children caught up in the judicial system, said over the past 12 years the shift has been to avoid placing children with strangers.

While more children are remaining with kin, the rising number of abuse reports since 2015 is stressing CASA’s volunteer network, she said.

In 2016, 14 Crawford County CASA volunteers advocated for 29 children, donating 1,183 hours, attending 74 court hearings and 48 meetings. Seventy other children did not have a volunteer available to assist them.

“It’s not an easy volunteer position,” Knight said. “It’s frustrating, it’s hard, it’s emotional. I had a CASA volunteer who put in 40 hours on a case in December. That’s a lot.”

More and better services for children and families are being offered, she said, but the challenge of helping parents to stick with services remains constant.

Drug, alcohol abuse

Another challenge, experts agree, is the pervasiveness of drug and alcohol abuse, which is wreaking havoc on families.

“Kids are being raised in addiction,” said Weir, adding that a large part of a social worker’s job is getting families into treatment.

Of the 37 new children who were removed from their home in Snyder County in 2015-16, 26 were a result of substance abuse and 13 of those were due to heroin abuse by one or both parents.

Coming full circle

Due to parental neglect, Maxine Williams was removed from her parents’ care at the age of 1 by Northumberland County CYS and turned over to a relative where she stayed for five years.

“The flaw I see in the system, in my personal experience, was being placed with kin. I think it’s great in some cases to place children with people who are familiar, but in cases like mine, the factors that caused me to be removed from the home were cyclical,” said Williams, who describes her parents as emotionally abusive and dealing with alcohol dependency and mental health issues.

She was returned to live with them at the age of 6 and immediately sensed something was awry.

Williams says she gradually became aware that other parents and households didn’t look like hers. “My friends’ parents got up during the day and slept at night. They were affectionate. Our house was dark and the blinds were always closed and it smelled heavily of cigarette smoke.”

She witnessed her parents’ violent arguments and was not allowed to have friends over.

It took a violent outburst a month before her 17th birthday to change the course of her life. This time, Williams lashed out at her mother, punching her, after receiving a spanking from her father for skipping school.

“I felt pushed to the brink,” she said, of the incident that led to her arrest for assault as a minor.

Once again removed from her home and placed in the foster care system with a different set of relatives, Williams began to turn her life around. She chose to remain in the system until age 21 so she could take advantage of services such as the Independent Living Program (ILP) which offers eligible youth in life skills lessons, resources and money to obtain an education or apartment.

“It gives kids an opportunity to get past their situation. I chose to break the cycle and go to college. It was my chance to be who I wanted,” said Williams, who graduated in 2013 from Susquehanna University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is now working toward a master’s degree in social work.

Gail Whitley, director of Northumberland County’s ILP, said Williams was motivated to succeed in the program that serves about 50 youths a year with the aid of a $300,000 grant.

Today, with new laws and a better understanding of what constitutes child abuse, Whitley said, Williams’ pleas for help likely would have been heard sooner.

Williams looks back on her experience with a trace of bitterness, but mostly optimism that she has broken the cycle of abuse for herself and a hope that she can help others.

While she said more needs to be done to protect children, she’s buoyed by the state’s inclusion of emotional abuse in the child abuse law and expansion of mandated reporters who are required to speak out when they suspect a child is being abused.

“That is a step in the right direction,” said Williams. “We have to take the lessons learned and augment them.”

EMAIL comments to mmoore@dailyitem.com. Follow Marcia on Twitter @marciamoore4. Justin Strawser of The Daily Item, and Lorri Drumm, Mike Crowley and Keith Gushard of The Meadville (Pa.) Tribune contributed to this report.

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