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LVHN, Lehigh County DA, and Lehigh County controller stake out positions

After the Aug. 23 Lehigh County board of commissioners meeting, during which Controller Mark Pinsley highlighted the results of his non-audit investigation of the county’s children and youth services (CYS) operation, and parents took to the mic to tell their CYS stories, various interested parties offered statements to the press.

Lehigh Valley Hospital Network, the home of the Child Advocacy Center, which reviews child abuse referrals, disclaimed any impropriety on behalf of the hospital or its staff, particularly Dr. Debra Esernio-Jenssen, whom parents at the meeting named as instrumental in their families’ struggles with the system. LVHN spokesman Brian Downs hinted that parents’ testimony at the meeting was unreliable, telling one media source in a statement that, “physicians specializing in child protective medicine are often the unfortunate target of emotionally driven and unsubstantiated criticism.” Downs further stated, “She [Dr. Jenssen] does not initiate child abuse cases.”

Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin also stated that his office was “not investigating Dr. Jenssen for any criminal activity at all,” and took a shot at the controller. “Mark Pinsley is so far out of his lane on this it’s not even funny.”

The Bethlehem Press has reached out to the DA’s office for clarification of his remarks, given that the suggestion of criminal charges was not made by Pinsley, but by Joe Welsh of the Lehigh Valley Justice Institute, who was also present at the Aug. 23 meeting. No response had been received by press time. We do expect, however, to follow up in our next issue.

Pinsley responded to follow-up questions from the Bethlehem Press about the timing of the report release and his hopes for CYS reform. Asked about his motivation in announcing the report to the public and to the commissioners instead of quietly circulating it within the county and its agencies that deal with family issues, he said he was concerned that the issues presented in the report might get buried and not be addressed.

“As the county controller, my duty is to cast light on potential shortcomings,” he said. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant. While I’ve delivered the report to the agencies, they often focus on whether procedures are followed rather than questioning the validity of those procedures. I challenge and highlight these systemic issues, especially when data and stories suggest a problem.”

Pinsley again noted a few items he hopes to see as part of reform to the county’s CYS processes.

“I hoped the commissioners and [county] executive would listen to the emotional stories of traumatized families and swiftly address the urgency of child welfare procedural reform,” he told the Press. “In the upcoming weeks, collaboration with SEIU is paramount to help select a distinguished child welfare expert from a top institution. This professional should have expertise in child welfare case analyses, policy recommendations, and staff management strategies. Adopting this combined approach ensures a comprehensive, employee-backed, and research-informed transformation in Lehigh County’s child welfare system that could prevent future cases of parents who are falsely accused of child abuse.”

The controller also drew attention to the need for review of hospital-based allegations of abuse by at least one physician from outside the hospital making the allegation, as well as the financial cost of problematic policies.

“As a financial watchdog, I must examine statistical anomalies that cause county spending. Even well-intentioned doctors can make errors with substantial financial ramifications. We should welcome discussions to improve processes […] Our shared priority should always be ensuring integrity in protecting children, not reflexively defending institutions.”