WILKES-BARRE -- The state's auditor general says the child welfare system is broken and Pennsylvania's at-risk children are not safe.
He stopped in Luzerne County Tuesday to talk to caseworkers, law enforcement, and local leaders to better understand the problem.
The big takeaway from the meeting is that caseworkers say they're understaffed and overworked. Right now, there are 23 vacancies at Luzerne County Children and Youth Services, but filling those positions has been a challenge.
Luzerne County Children and Youth caseworkers say they never know what dangers they could face while on the job.
"We showed up at the father's house. He greeted us on the front porch with a gun, sitting on the porch with the gun resting on his leg saying, 'You're not taking my kids. You're not taking my kids," recalled caseworker Tony Bellizia.
Bellizia's training helped him get out of that situation OK, but it's instances like that which brought Auditor General Eugene DePasquale to Wilkes-Barre to hear about these problems. DePasquale recently finished a report detailing what he calls the state's broken child welfare system.
"The case workers here, law enforcement here, and the D.A. are doing everything they can to try to protect children. There are some situations that are very challenging, though, and we have to do our part to make sure all across the state, not just here in Luzerne County, we're trying to do more to protect our children," DePasquale said.
The report finds that from 2014 to 2016, the number of child abuse reports in Luzerne County has gone up by 63 percent. All this is playing out while the agency is understaffed.
Luzerne County Manager David Pedri says he thinks part of the staffing problem is students coming out of college don't know the right steps to take to be a caseworker.
"Let's face it. It's 2017. Our college seniors are not going to the papers or the civil services list. We've got to check Facebook and we've got to go to the websites. That's where people are looking for jobs," Pedri said.
Through all this, caseworkers hope the public doesn't lose sight of what they're really there to do.
"What we're doing is protecting children and there are a lot of positive outcomes, too. There are a lot of children who are adopted into homes where they are going to be loved and provided for, for the rest of their lives," said Bellizia.
The auditor general says he is going to take all that he's learned from this meeting, continue touring the state to learn more, and find a way to fix this problem.