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Opioid crisis exacerbating child abuse issues in Pennsylvania, DePasquale tells CDT

What is Pennsylvania doing to protect children?

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale speaks to the Centre Daily Times on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018. He hopes to release an action plan in the spring that outlines how best to protect Pennsylvania’s children following the release of the State of the Child
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Auditor General Eugene DePasquale speaks to the Centre Daily Times on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018. He hopes to release an action plan in the spring that outlines how best to protect Pennsylvania’s children following the release of the State of the Child

The Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General views child protection as its No. 1 priority.

After auditing ChildLine, the child abuse hotline, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale completed a yearlong review of the state’s children and youth services system, releasing the “State of the Child” report in September. The report found that the system is broken and puts children at risk.

But, that report wasn’t the end, DePasquale told the CDT on Monday.

“I was really not happy with just pointing out the problems,” he said.

DePasquale’s team has traveled the state, meeting with county workers, commissioners and youth advocates to see what needs to be done to get a better system in place.

He said they hope to release an action plan in the spring that outlines how best to protect Pennsylvania’s children.

It’s more than just sort of the physical abuse, but now it’s sort of the emotional, or lack of emotional support, abuse or ... parents not able to be parents anymore because they’re overdosing on drugs.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale

Challenges in the system include burdensome amounts of paperwork and high turnover rates for case workers. In fiscal year 2016-17, Centre County Office of Children and Youth Services had a 40 percent turnover rate.

There’s a common theme among the case workers to whom DePasquale has spoken: Things have gotten worse over the past several years because of opioids.

“There’s always been a problem with child abuse and probably, at some level, there always will be .... ” he said. “We can get it lower, but there’s always gonna be some of it. But opioids have clearly exploded it. But it’s exploded it, I think, in a different way. It’s more than just sort of the physical abuse, but now it’s sort of the emotional, or lack of emotional support, abuse or ... parents not able to be parents anymore because they’re overdosing on drugs.”

Marijuana

The legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana could be a way to help address the opioid crisis.

“Opioid addiction in the states that have legalized [marijuana] has gone down because it is a less harmful way for some people to reduce pain,” DePasquale said.

Beyond that, he said he’ll continue to make the case for its legalization for economic and budgetary reasons.

When he first ran for auditor general, DePasquale’s position on legalizing marijuana was to see what happens in other states first.

“Well, the data’s in now,” he said. “The amount of money that comes in is huge.”

Colorado — a state that’s almost 2 1/2 times smaller than Pennsylvania — brought in $247.4 million in revenue from medical marijuana tax and fee collections in 2017, according to Colorado’s Department of Revenue.

Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana in 2016.

Auditing municipal authorities

Two areas where legislation would help increase transparency and accountability are giving the auditor general’s office the ability to audit the state legislature and local municipal authorities, like water and sewer providers.

DePasquale said he can only audit local authorities when he’s invited.

“These local authorities are the most unaccountable entities of government,” he said.

While DePasquale also doesn’t have the jurisdiction to audit the legislature, voters can replace elected officials at the ballot box, he noted.

He’s encouraging legislators to support state Senate Bill 597, which would give his office the ability to audit these entities.

“I recognize I can’t audit every authority every year. We don’t audit every school district every year. We don’t audit every penny every year. But the threat of being able to do it — school districts know if they get out of line, we’ve caught people before and we can bring down the hammer,” DePasquale said.

Sarah Rafacz: 814-231-4619, @SarahRafacz

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