The head of a county child welfare agency in northeastern Pennsylvania was charged Tuesday with ordering workers to falsely close files on allegations of child abuse and neglect in response to public reports of a significant backlog of cases.
The attorney general's office accused Joanne G. Van Saun, 58, of Dallas, Pennsylvania, with child endangerment and obstruction for ending assessments in order to clear the backlog at the Luzerne County Department of Children and Youth Services. She resigned from her position as agency director on Friday.
Van Saun’s attorney, Patrick A. Casey, declined comment.
In court documents, investigators said Van Saun set up a team led by three senior aides to address a backlog of nearly 1,400 cases that was reported by The Citizens' Voice of Wilkes-Barre in 2017.
“Van Saun told the three leaders that she wanted the backlog eradicated immediately, and that she did not care how they did it,” according to the probable cause affidavit used to charge her. Investigators said people who worked under Van Saun described her as a bully and tyrant.
Authorities claim that more than 200 referrals from the state-run ChildLine hotline were improperly ended by clerical workers at her direction in May 2017, including reports of a child who came to school hungry, a child burned in the face when his or her mother threw a cigarette out a car window, an adult telling children to kill themselves, and a 100-pound (45-kilogram) child still using a diaper.
One case was a child who approached someone at a high school football game and said, “Please kidnap me I don't want to go home,” grabbing onto the person's waist.
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Those and other ChildLine referrals were terminated — the agency used the term “screened out” — by Luzerne Children and Youth Services secretaries who falsely noted they “did not allege abuse or neglect,” the charging officer wrote.
“By ordering the summary deletion by screen out of these referrals, Van Saun directly placed the welfare of the subject children in danger,” the arrest affidavit alleged.
Van Saun was arraigned Tuesday by a district judge in Harrisburg, with unsecured bail set at $100,000. A court date was set for September.
State prosecutors say three other former Luzerne Children and Youth Services employees implicated in deleting the cases have agreed not to serve in any position where they would be mandated to report suspected child abuse until at least 2025. They were not charged.
Cathleen Palm, who advocates for child safety as director of the Bernville-based Center for Children's Justice, said policymakers should review how state law gives county child welfare agencies considerable discretion to screen out ChildLine referrals that do not allege physical or sexual harm.
“Regardless of the outcome of this criminal case, the red flag has been sounded," Palm said. "To what degree, in 67 counites, are people operating with pretty significant discretion as to what is screened in or screened out, and what happens for a child or doesn't happen for a child? And oftentimes, the screened out child often becomes the child we all mourn as a fatality.”