Human Services Redesign

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 people 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 Human Services Integration Fund (HSIF)(PDF, 207KB), 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)
  • Office of Policy, Information, Planning, Evaluation and Research (PIPER)

Details of the redesign are available in the vision document Redesigning Human Services Delivery in Allegheny County(PDF, 80KB) published in January, 1998. The publication, A Progress Report(PDF, 128KB), issued in February, 1999, documents the changes that took place within DHS during its first two years.

In the 2000 DHS Annual Report(PDF, 871KB), 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
  • 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.