One of the most respected county human services directors in the country is calling it quits after a quarter-century of service to the children and families of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County.
When Marc Cherna first came to work in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County’s child welfare system was floundering. Plagued by child deaths, burdensome caseloads, staff burnout and attrition and a lot of negative media coverage, it was, Cherna readily acknowledged, “a national disgrace.”
Not anymore. Most people who haven’t checked in with the situation since the bad old days probably wouldn’t recognize the operation now.
Cherna will retire next year carrying a virtual armload of accolades, including the first lifetime achievement award from the prominent Casey Family Programs foundation, which he won in 2014. During the years he ran the show, the county Department of Human Services was also recognized by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the Urban League and the League of Women Voters.
Not all of his accomplishments were in the field of child welfare. As head of human services, he ran the largest department in the county through the worst of the opioid epidemic by creating programs to help parents recover from addictions and setting up related programs for the whole family. Human Services also established resources to help people cope with COVID-19-driven unemployment and mental health problems.
He inherited a system that in 1996 held more than 3,000 children in out-of-home placements, 70% of them with nonrelative foster parents or in group homes and residential care facilities. The number of youth in care is half that in recent years, and his long-running partnership with area nonprofit A Second Chance has helped make Allegheny County one of the highest users of relatives to care for children who are removed from their homes.
Sharon McDaniel, the founder of A Second Chance, said Cherna met regularly with community partners at Ritter’s Diner. “That was our version of ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name,” McDaniel said, in an e-mail. “I witnessed Marc interacting with many, checking in on their families and loved ones, and ensuring the Department of Human Services could assist where needed.”
Cherna “believes in supporting kin the same as non-kin in terms of financial and concrete supports,” she said. “The direct outcome has been more beneficial to children, youth, families and their communities.”
In recent years, Cherna invited controversy by putting Allegheny out front on a divisive issue in child welfare: the use of predictive analytics and algorithms. In 2015 the county built a predictive tool to guide the decision-making of child protection workers at the point when potential cases are being screened in or out. This year, Cherna brought in a new layer of predictive work: a program called Hello Baby, through which DHS is offering tiered levels of services to the parents of every newborn in the county.
The use of big data in human services has drawn criticism from some researchers who say these algorithms bake in a bias against poor parents, particularly those of color by relying heavily on public data records.
“By relying on data that is only collected on families using public resources, the AFST unfairly targets low-income families for child welfare scrutiny,” said University of Albany professor Virginia Eubanks, in her book “Automating Inequality.”
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald praised Cherna’s career accomplishments and wished him well in retirement while noting in a tweet that “his loss at the county will be substantial.”
As for Cherna, he looks forward to some sustained relaxation for the first time in decades. “Not having to be on 24/7 call for crises, to turn my phones off and not have to worry about them — that’s a nice one,” he told the Post-Gazette.