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History of DHS

The Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) is responsible for providing and administering publicly funded human services to Allegheny County residents. DHS is dedicated to meeting these human services needs, most particularly for the county's most vulnerable populations, through an extensive range of information exchange, prevention, early intervention, case management, crisis intervention and after-care services.

DHS provides a wide range of services, including services for older adults; mental health and drug and alcohol services (includes 24-hour crisis counseling); child protective services; at-risk child development and education; hunger services; emergency shelters and housing for the homeless; energy assistance; non-emergency medical transportation; job training and placement for adults who receive TANF benefits; and services for individuals with a diagnosis of intellectual disability.

DHS - A History Perspective

Heightened public awareness of child abuse and neglect, rising poverty, the continuing dissolution of the family, and the introduction of crack cocaine during the 1990s all contributed to a tremendous surge in child dependency cases in Allegheny County and across the nation.

A series of public hearings calling for sweeping child welfare reforms following the tragic death of a child in care resulted in the resignation of the Department of Children and Youth Services (CYS) director in February 1995. A national search was launched immediately to find a new director of CYS who would “overhaul the agency.” Marc Cherna was appointed Child Welfare Director in early 1996.

Concurrently, Allegheny County Commissioners appointed Dr. John Murray, Duquesne University President to chair the blue ribbon Committee to Prepare Allegheny County for the 21st Century (ComPAC 21). According to the ComPAC 21 report, the County was "not competing effectively with other regions that are experiencing vibrant growth." Among the changes recommended was streamlining County government which then included 30 departments reporting to the Commissioners.

The decision was made to reorganize county government into five departments: General Services, Public Works, Safety Services, Budget and Finance and Human Services. The Department of Human Services would be the consolidation of six former county departments. Child Welfare Director Marc Cherna was asked to expand his duties to become the first Director of the Department of Human Services in January, 1997.

As the community process to form DHS began, input and assistance were sought from a broad range of stakeholders. Representatives from the general public, foundations, universities, corporations, government, faith-based organizations and non-profits were all consulted and challenged to help design DHS such that consumers could receive comprehensive services, delivered seamlessly. Philosophical, functional and structural foundations for DHS were laid in the process. This collaborative effort led to the adoption of Our Vision Statement (To create an accessible, culturally competent, integrated and comprehensive human services system that ensures individually tailored, seamless and holistic services to Allegheny County residents, in particular, the county’s vulnerable populations) and Guiding Principles (All services will be: High quality—reflecting best practices in case management, counseling, and treatment; Readily accessible—in natural, least-restrictive settings, often community-based; Strengths-based—focusing on the capabilities of individuals and families, not their deficits; Culturally competent—demonstrating respect for individuals, their goals, and preferences; Individually tailored and empowering—by building confidence and shared decision-making as routes to independence rather than dependency; Holistic—serving the comprehensive needs of families as well as individuals through tangible aid and a full continuum of services—Information Exchange, Prevention, Early Intervention, Case Management, Crisis Intervention and After Care). Both these, the means by which we do our work and the organization of DHS all reflect community input. 

Various committees and groups invested significant effort in seeing the Department through its formative years. When DHS was created in 1997, it had no information systems strategy, no consistent pay scales or career path models, no centralized administrative function, and an outdated financial software package. The department was scattered haphazardly across numerous locations downtown and suffered from low morale because of all the changes that were taking place.

Members of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, along with university experts, took a lead role in developing theoretical solutions to these challenges but funding the required changes required a flexible, forward-thinking, out-of-the-box approach. The foundation community stepped in to help deal with all of these problems and more.

The commitment of our local foundations was crucial to the success of the newly designed Department of Human Services. Created in 1997, the pdf.gif Human Services Integration Fund (HSIF), an expeditious partnering of local, socially focused foundations, was a particularly welcomed means to advancing the goals of our restructuring plans. HSIF paved the way to fundamental changes in what and how services were provided through DHS.

Significant contributions to the success of DHS were also made by the members of the DHS Oversight Committee. The committee, consisting of respected members of a cross section of the community and chaired by Dr. John Murray, offered their expert opinions on timely issues.

In the end, the former six County departments were reorganized into five DHS program offices which better reflected programmatic requirements. They were:

Area Agency on Aging (AAA), the former Department of Aging

Office of Behavioral Health (OBH), a portion of the former Department of Mental Health/Mental Retardation/Drug & Alcohol/Hunger & Homeless (MH/MR/D&A/H&H)

Office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF), the same functions as the former Children and Youth Services

Office of Community Services (OCS), the former Department of Federal Programs plus portions of the former MH/MR/D&A/H&H

Office of Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities (MR/DD), a portion of the former MH/MR/D&A/H&H

Functions previously handled by each department including: support workers who provided fiscal, human resources, planning, information systems, research, evaluation, and community and media relations assistance to the program staff were removed and consolidated into three offices.

 Office of Administration (OA), 
 Office of Community Relations (OCR) and
 Office of Policy, Information, Planning, Evaluation and Research (PIPER)

Details of the redesign are available in the vision document pdf.gif Redesigning Human Services Delivery in Allegheny County published in January, 1998. The publication pdf.gif A Progress Report, issued in February, 1999, documents the changes that took place within DHS during its first two years.

In the pdf.gif 2000 DHS Annual Report, Director Cherna summarizes the progress DHS had made in the four years since re-design.

“In January of 1997—when we began in earnest to redesign the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, we embraced a whole new vision for meeting the service needs of our residents. Overall, we set out to achieve three overarching goals:
• to serve more people and to serve them better,
• to provide responsible stewardship for the public funds that support those services, and
• to integrate internal administrative functions as a means of improving staff efficiency, communication, and accessibility to services.

I am pleased to report that, in those four years, we have made great strides toward meeting those goals. We are serving more people in settings that are more accessible and in ways that foster independence and permanency and address the totality of an individual or a family’s needs. We have expanded our fiscal resources by securing additional dollars in federal, state, and private funding while reducing the County’s share of our budget. And we’ve accomplished these efficiencies by consolidating administrative functions and data management as well as by the physical relocation of staff and services.

That progress was made possible through the unprecedented collaboration among the County government, business,…universities, community-based organizations, service providers, and private foundations and the guidance of the DHS Oversight Committee… These efforts are another significant example of the unified commitment to address common concerns that is typical of Allegheny County and its leaders. We are grateful to all who have played a part in the creation of this new Department, including our dedicated staff who play such a critical role in our new way of doing business, and we look forward to continued collaboration as we address future challenges.”

It was recognized in 1997, that realizing the community vision of an integrated human services system capable of addressing the needs of individuals and families—with a complex assortment of needs that cross program offices and categorical funding lines—was easier said than done.

Years of categorical funding had isolated public money into diagnosis-specific “silos,” each with its own regulations and eligibility criteria. The service system grew out of that silo approach, with social workers specializing in specific “presenting” problems rather than—individually or as a team—looking comprehensively at the whole person or whole family with multiple needs.

On September 17, 2004, severe flooding caused by the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan brought physical and psychological damage to communities along Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Thousands of Allegheny County residents were affected, many in extreme ways. DHS joined other county agencies to conduct round-the-clock outreach and provide much-needed services to those in need.

Just one year later, in September of 2005, DHS, utilizing lessons learned through the Ivan experience, again worked in concert with other public and private agencies, local foundations and individuals to respond to the needs of more than 250 Gulf Coast residents fleeing the natural disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina. Individuals and families found assistance with housing, food, clothing, education, medical, records retrieval and employment services.

By 2006, DHS had come a long way toward implementing a cross-systems approach throughout. Some excellent models were implemented early on that helped define the DHS philosophy. Programs like Community Connections for Families (CCF) and Family Group Decision-Making demonstrated the value of involving consumers and their families with representatives from a wide range of potential resources, in and outside of DHS. The pioneering Beverly Jewel Wall Lovelace Fund for Children’s Programs showed the value of public-private partnerships and the importance of allowing residents to identify their needs and the programs to address them. And by cooperating to help seniors find employment, transportation, and energy assistance, the Area Agency on Aging and the Office of Community Services proved that collaboration added value to services of both offices and laid the groundwork for larger efforts like the Jail Collaborative.

With much support from the pdf.gif Human Services Integration Fund (HSIF), DHS now boasts a nationally recognized human services system, a state-of-the-art accounting system and the Data Warehouse that sustains our integrated system. Multiple innovative initiatives benefiting our community have each positioned Allegheny County as a national model for human services. The forward thinking that characterized the Human Services Integration Fund committee is exemplified in initiatives that reduce the time children spend in temporary placement, provide the option of treatment rather than incarceration to lawbreakers with behavioral health concerns, reduce recidivism by focusing on the transition between incarceration and independence, and work to reduce crime and violence. Pilot programs that support children in after school programs, seniors in community centers and the disability community have developed into essential offerings that further the effectiveness of DHS.

Fortunately, at the same time that foundation funding allowed DHS to pursue these “out-of-the-box” service offerings in demonstration projects, a similar philosophy was taking hold at the state level. Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare Secretary Estelle B. Richman, a strong advocate of collaboration among various sectors to meet the needs of children and families, directed counties to coordinate services and pledged to dismantle the regulatory and funding silos that discourage collaboration.

The DHS Integrated Planning Process is a prime example of extending this model to bring together essential resources and creative thinkers to address the problems of young people from birth to 21 years who exhibit severe behavioral disorders in the presence of a mental health diagnosis, intellectual disability, and/or developmental disabilities.

As this effort to streamline service delivery and reduce redundancies has taken hold in all of DHS service areas, the departmental newsletter—DHSNews—used 2006 as an opportunity to showcase this forward-thinking philosophy in action with front-page articles that describe how program offices came together to achieve better outcomes for the consumers of Allegheny County. An overview of some cross-systems efforts is available here.

DHS senior and administrative staff are often invited to present at local, state and national conferences regarding the process Allegheny County has utilized to make strides in human services delivery. That DHS has become a national model in human services has also generated media interest on a national level. Coverage has appeared on national television networks CNN, and ABC and in The New York Times.

In January 2007, DHS celebrated its 10-year anniversary. A special anniversary retrospective report was compiled which reflected comments from many of the same community members who helped to develop the original vision document and supported DHS through its first decade. Realizing a Community Vision – A Decade of Progress 1997-2007 celebrates how cooperative effort and open communication has led to improved services and support to our Allegheny County residents.

In 2007, DHS added a new support office, the Office of Data Analysis, Research and Evaluation (DARE). DARE supports and conducts research to produce community-ready information about the work of DHS.

The Allegheny County Department of Human Services is committed to safely reducing the number of children in out-of-home placements by integrating children’s services and improving outcomes for children who enter the DHS system through the Improving Outcomes for Children and Families Initiative. This department-wide service-integration plan helps to ensure that all child-serving systems within the county plan together as one system to determine what services are appropriate for a child and his or her family. The specific goals of the DHS Improving Outcomes Initiative were articulated in apdf.gif proposal to Casey Family Programs, a national foundation focused on improving the child welfare system, in 2008. Casey and local foundations embraced the concept and provided operational funding assistance.

In early 2009, DHS was awarded millions of stimulus dollars from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 either as a primary grantee or a sub-grantee. These grants helped to mitigate the effects of the economic downturn on Allegheny County. Funds were for programs of varying durations with effective dates between February 2009 and July 2011.

On May 28, 2009, President Barak Obama announced that he had chosen Pittsburgh as the host site for the 2009 Group of 20 (G20) Summit to be convened at the end of September. It was soon evident that heightened security would significantly limited mobility in the city during the five-day event. As a result DHS established continuity plans so as to ensure those who rely on publicly funded services provided by DHS and its contracted agencies would continue to be served. DHS staff also assisted federal and local communications teams to handle media and resident inquiries before and during the event. In addition, in anticipation of the needs of media, DHS prepared short essays describing Innovations that had taken place since 1997 at DHS.

In April 2010, DHS announced the integration of two DHS support offices – Administration and Information Management – into the new DHS Office of Administrative and Information Management Services (AIMS).  The integration followed months of deliberation and strategizing about all essential functions within these two offices by the DHS transition team. The new structure of a single administrative/information technology office aligned DHS with emerging practices in both the private and public sectors to consolidate these two areas of operation. Consolidation was intended to maximize the use of limited resources and improve decision-making by better utilizing available data. An expanded transition team with representatives from both administrative and information management finalized the roles and responsibilities for staff within the new office.

In July 2010, the name of the DHS office responsible for providing services to persons with a diagnosis of intellectual disability and their families was changed from the Office of Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities to the Office of Intellectual Disability.

In May 2011, the position of Executive Deputy Director for Integrated Program Services was created. This individual oversees all program offices and transition-age youth and cross-systems programs.

In 2012, DHS undertook the next step toward full integration by developing the DHS Practice Model. The practice model is our conceptual map and organizational ideology describing the values and principles for integrated practice underlying our work and describing specific approaches and techniques used to achieve desired integration outcomes. It assures consistency and coordination not only across DHS but also across the network of partnering organizations that comprise our public human service system.

In June 2013, the Area Agency on Aging consolidated its downtown Pittsburgh, McKeesport and Carnegie offices to a location on Pittsburgh's South Side.

The Current Structure of DHS

pdf.gif DHS Organizational Chart   

Executive Office (EO) 

DHS Executive Deputy Director of Integrated Program Services

Area Agency on Aging (AAA) 

Office of Behavioral Health (OBH) 

Office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF) 

Office of Community Services (OCS) 

Office of Intellectual Disability (OID)  

Office of Administrative and Information Management Services (AIMS) 

Office of Community Relations (OCR) 

Office of Data Analysis, Research and Evaluation (DARE)