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Whistleblower suit targets child, family agency

Plaintiff says complaints about staffing got her fired

Thursday, May 29, 2003

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A veteran employee of Allegheny County's Office of Children, Youth and Families yesterday filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit claiming she was fired when she tried to tell the public how seriously children were endangered by the agency's understaffing.

Penne Fabian, right, a former case practice specialist with the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families, listens to her lawyer, Timothy O’Brien, at yesterday’s news conference. Fabian is suing CYF after being fired. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

The suit, filed with the support of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says county Human Services Director Marc Cherna retaliated against Penne Fabian when she insisted that a workload assessment report include specific statistics about caseworkers failing to complete required visits to families and children.

"I have personally experienced the dysfunction of the agency and I have personally experienced our agency putting children in our care at risk," Fabian said yesterday during a news conference in the Allegheny Building, Downtown, with her lawyers, Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU, and co-counsel Timothy O'Brien.

State regulations require caseworkers to visit children at least once a month to ensure their safety when they're permitted to remain with abusive or neglectful parents or are placed in foster care.

When caseworkers fail to check on children, Fabian said, the consequences can be terrible. She cited Quatasia Settles as an example. The 2-year-old was discovered mummified in her mother's Hill District apartment in 1999, and the caseworker has admitted that she hadn't visited in 11 months.

In addition, Fabian said, when caseworkers don't visit, children can disappear, as did 5-year-old Rilya Wilson of Florida.

Fabian's lawsuit, filed against Cherna, CYF and Allegheny County, says her right to free speech was violated by the firing. It seeks punitive and compensatory damages, as well as restoration of her job at CYF, where she was a case practice specialist.

"She had 14 years with the agency with an unblemished work record. There were no complaints against her until she attempted to disclose to the public information about the agency's performance," O'Brien said.

Among the statistics Fabian says were censored from the final report were those showing high caseworker vacancy rates resulting in workers visiting families only 42 percent of the time they were required to.

Cherna and county Solicitor Charles McCullough said yesterday they had not seen the suit and could not comment specifically on it. McCullough said, however, that Fabian's termination was for insubordination and was justified. He called the whistleblower allegation a fabrication.

Cherna said he was prohibited from commenting on the suit, but he did talk about the final "Workload Assessment Study" report, issued in November.

He said he commissioned the $100,000 study by experts at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work to demonstrate that for caseworkers to do their jobs correctly, lower caseloads were essential. Fabian was assigned to help the Pitt researchers gather information from CYF caseworkers. Neither Pitt researcher could be reached last night for comment.

Cherna said he wanted the experts to determine whether caseworkers could complete everything required by the state -- including monthly visits -- with caseloads as high as 30, which is the state's limit.

Though the report does not include the statistics Fabian cites in her lawsuit, it is far from complimentary to CYF. It says the average caseload was 24 families, which is below the limit, but a number the experts said was too high.

The report says that to complete all duties, intake caseworkers, who perform initial investigations of abuse or neglect allegations, should have loads no higher than 16, and family service workers, who help parents get their children back from foster care, should have no more than 17 families assigned.

Though not as specific as Fabian wanted, the report does say that with caseloads of 24, it is impossible for workers to visit children as required.

"I wanted to know, to do the job right, what is the ideal maximum number of cases," Cherna said yesterday. That statistical information would help him to lobby for more money for caseworkers.

He said he has given the report, paid for by Pittsburgh area foundations, to the state Department of Public Welfare and the Child Welfare League of America. "I am using it to advocate for improvement," he said.

The lawsuit says Cherna demanded that specific statistics be deleted from the report because if they remained, he is quoted as saying, "the media would be all over it."

The suit accuses Cherna of cursing at Fabian when she questioned the deletions. And, finally, it says when Fabian again questioned exclusion of the information, Cherna became angry and told her, "You are out of here," after which she was fired.

Barbara White Stack can be reached at bwhitestack@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.

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