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Beaver County plans inquiry into Children and Youth Services

Newly elected commissioners promise probe following PG series

Sunday, December 19, 1999

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Beaver County Commissioner Dan Donatella and Commissioner-elect Charlie Camp say that the new board of commissioners will conduct an inquiry early next year into the county's Children and Youth Services agency because of issues raised in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week.

The Sunday-Wednesday series, "When the Bough Breaks," detailed how Beaver County CYS and the county's Juvenile and Orphan's courts terminate parents' legal rights to their children twice as fast as the national average, and even more quickly when the children are infants; place some babies for potential adoption with people connected to CYS or the courts; fail to provide poor children and parents with lawyers for some hearings; resist giving abused or neglected children to relatives; refuse to give foster care payments to relatives who do get custody; and don't consistently provide required court notices.

"The new board will scrutinize [CYS officials] to make sure they are following regulations and that there is no foul play," said Donatella, a Democrat who's likely to be named chairman of the new board because he received the most votes in the general election.

"In light of the stories, we need to sit down and review that entire situation."

Donatella said the board would hire a consultant to help if necessary because the rules and regulations governing child welfare agencies are so complicated and voluminous.

Donatella, who was appointed to the board two years ago, said he was vaguely aware that there might be some problems with CYS because he had received complaints about the agency and because earlier this year, the county had fired a caseworker who was falsifying reports.

Camp, a Republican, said he began researching the situation after reading the first two days' stories. "I did talk to the head caseworker for background research. I need to get more information," he said.

The other commissioner-elect, James Albert, a Democrat, declined to comment, saying he had not read the stories.

The stories were prompted by two incidents in Beaver County late last year.

The first was the refusal of CYS to allow foster parents Betsy and Dr. John Lee to adopt triplets, one of whom the couple had raised for 14 months, even though the babies' mother and the foster mothers who had the two other girls supported adoption by the Lees.

The second was Beaver County Common Pleas Judge Robert C. Reed's termination of Amanda Kolle's parental rights at the request of Deborah and Ronald DeCostro, who wanted to adopt Kolle's son. Kolle, a Carnegie resident, was not involved with CYS. A family friend gave her baby to the DeCostros for adoption without Kolle's knowledge or permission. Reed failed to inform Kolle's lawyer before the termination hearing that his wife and DeCostro had shared office space and that he had appointed DeCostro almost exclusively to represent children in termination cases.

After Kolle's termination, the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union helped appeal the decision, and it asked the state Supreme Court to institute due process guarantees in Beaver County termination cases.

Reed settled that case before it went to court, agreeing to rewrite court rules to ensure parent rights. And he reversed two parents' terminations. In both cases, he had terminated jailed women who were not transported to termination hearings to defend themselves.

Kolle's case remains under appeal, awaiting a decision by the Superior Court.

Witold Walczak, Pittsburgh ACLU director, said information in the Post-Gazette series suggests the ACLU's work in Beaver County is not done. "Up until now, we have focused on the court side of terminations, but I think there is enough in the stories that we are working on assembling a legal team to look at the [CYS] system."

He said as he read stories of parents whose rights were terminated quickly and in some cases without proper legal protections, he recognized names of people who had called the ACLU for help. "I am heartbroken that the ACLU didn't have the resources to help more of these parents and children," he said.

Jay Pagni, press secretary for the state Department of Public Welfare, which funds and supervises county child welfare agencies, including Beaver County CYS, said his "department will closely monitor [CYS] to ensure they are adhering to our regulations and practice standards."

He said the Welfare Department is working with CYS on a new program to provide foster payments to relatives caring for abused or neglected children.

Although state and federal law prohibit child welfare agencies from discriminating against giving such children to relatives, CYS had skirted those regulations by simply not certifying relatives as foster parents.

Only certified foster parents may receive foster care payments. "They will be developing a paid kinship care program there to address the relative issue," Pagni said.

In addition, the series may be used by a task force established by the state Legislature earlier this month to examine child welfare policies and practices statewide. Stephen MacNett, chief counsel for the state Senate Republicans, said, "We have a mechanism in place to evaluate some of the issues raised in the series."

State Sen. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, a psychologist who has evaluated and treated abused and neglected children, has been named to the eight-member task force.

He said the group would evaluate child welfare across the state as a result of incidents in numerous legislative districts. That, he said, would include issues raised in Beaver County, but also matters such as overburdened, underpaid caseworkers and court delays. "I do not think the system should contribute to the abuse of the child," he said.

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