Special Report: State of the Child
WILKES-BARRE (WOLF-TV) —
Pennsylvania's child welfare system is broken.
Those are the harsh words from the state's auditor general, who says Children and Youth Services is struggling to keep our children safe.
In some cases, it's even turned deadly.
Brittany Ogurkis spent 4,015 days in the foster system in Luzerne County.
In a revealing conversation, she opens up to explain how she believes Children and Youth failed her each and every one of those days.
"It took my trust. It broke my heart. It hurt me. And I had to suffer. And I should not have had to suffer. I would have rather stayed where I was, then be put through with what I have,” Ogurkis said.
Ogurkis' nightmare began on a summer morning about fifteen years ago, when a Children and Youth caseworker showed up to her Wilkes-Barre home.
"She asked us where our parents were, and that she was going to take us to McDonald's,” Ogurkis continued.
Brittany says she and her four siblings grew up poor and never ate at the popular fast food chain.
Excited for a special treat, they piled into the caseworker’s car.
Instead of going to McDonald's, she took them to Luzerne County Children and Youth Services.
"We were in there for about a few hours, then a caseworker came in and said we were going to a different home for temporarily,” she said.
But as Brittany would later realize, it wasn't temporary.
With her siblings scattered in foster homes throughout the county, Brittany and her youngest sister ended up at what she calls an abusive home in Hunlock Creek.
"I went there thinking I was going to return home and, you know, we were all going to be together and that I was going to get McDonald's and I didn't. Here I was being tortured in this home and they didn't want to listen. I don't know if they wanted to help, but they didn't help."
Brittany says she and her sister told the caseworkers about the abusive conditions and were met with false promises.
"It like they did nothing about it. It's like they didn't care.”
Released in September, the "State of the Child" report focused on 13 counties, including Luzerne and Monroe.
The 80-page document highlighted the system's strengths and challenges.
For instance, the state spent nearly $2 billion dollars on the program in 2016.
But 46 children died and another 79 nearly died from abuse.
Nearly half of those children who died were in families already known to C&YS.
It also found many caseworkers are extremely overworked and largely underpaid.
"They're overwhelmed; they don't know how to handle the situations. It's one of the most, in my opinion, most dangerous jobs for such a small amount of salary,” Stefanie Salavantis, Luzerne County District Attorney, said.
Growing up, State Representative Tarah Toohil's family fostered more than 40 children.
Her foster brother Brandon accidentally died after suffering years of abuse at the hands of others.
"The problems that existed back then in the 90s when I was a foster sibling, they still exist today. The system was broken then and it still continues to be broken. There's certainly not enough funding and enough programming that goes towards these children,” Rep. Toohil said.
The report also claimed they’re significantly understaffed while the number of cases continues to increase.
In 2015 alone, 42,000 calls to the state's child abuse hotline went unanswered.
The number of reported abuse cases in the 13 counties also increased between 2014 and 2016.
39% in Monroe County and 63% in Luzerne.
"You have these kids in the house that are most vulnerable in the home. So, our job is to be a detective to find out what's going on, make sure services get in place for the families and make sure the children are in the safest place. But a lot of times, we don't have that. We knock on doors; they refuse to answer. We rely on the law enforcement to come out with us if the parents are being extremely volatile,” Corrine Carper, a Luzerne County Children and Youth caseworker, said.
Brittany vividly remembers a conversation she and her sister had with a caseworker who came to visit about a year after they arrived at the home in Hunlock Creek.
"We were crying. We were like, 'we don't want to be here. They abuse us. They don't feed us. They lock us outside all day. They make us drink out of the water hose.' And she's like 'okay, don't worry. We'll be back. We'll be back.' And she never returned after that to come get us,” Ogurkis said.
The two were eventually removed from Hunlock Creek.
From there, they went to live at a home in Wilkes-Barre where they stayed for several years.
With her clothes in trash bags, she left at 18 to live with a friend.
She soon began taking classes at Luzerne County Community College.
It was there, after class one day, when she decided to open up and share her story with her teacher Lori Ogurkis.
"She took my hand and she's like 'from this moment on you'll never have to be alone and I'm gonna help you.' And she did!"
A few years later, Lori and her husband legally adopted Brittany when she was 21 years old.
While her life has significantly changed since then, she hasn't forgotten about the children in the system and the caseworkers who may be failing them as well.
"This is something you have to work hard at. You have to work from your heart. You're saving lives. That's what your job is. It's basically saving children's lives and helping them and they're failing at that. I think if they had the right mindset, like if they actually cared, it would've been better. But I don't think any of them cared, honestly. That's just my opinion.”
While Toohil says there have been improvements, especially when it comes to adopting foster children, we still have a long way to go.
"We need more foster parents. We need more people to go into becoming case workers. We need more funding towards those salaries, because they're important, important jobs,” Toohil added.
Meanwhile, Brittany wants the children who may feel forgotten to know there are advocates who are fighting to save their lives.
"Even if they're hurting, don't give up. They were given this life because, like that saying, 'they were given this life because they were strong enough to live it.' So, it's like find that strength and keep going,” she said.
Brittany says she leads a happy life with her adoptive family and hopes to adopt children of her own one day.
As for her relationship with her four biological siblings, she says they no longer communicate.