Joanne G. Van Saun (Office of Attorney General via AP) Joanne G. Van Saun
Joanne G. Van Saun (Office of Attorney General via AP)

The case involves reports of children who came to school hungry, a child burned in the face when their mother threw a cigarette out a car window, an adult telling children to kill themselves, and a 100-pound child still using a diaper.

HARRISBURG — The former head of a county welfare agency in northeastern Pennsylvania pleaded guilty Thursday to endangering children by concealing abuse allegations to clear a backlog of cases.

Joanne Van Saun, who resigned as Luzerne County’s director of the Department of Children and Youth Services in Luzerne County after her arrest in July, pleaded guilty before a county judge in Harrisburg to endangering the welfare of children and two counts of obstruction. Sentencing is set for December.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office prosecuted the case, said in a statement that Van Saun “turned a blind eye toward the abuse and neglect of children, violating the law and her duty to protect the most vulnerable.” Her attorney, Patrick A. Casey, declined comment.

Van Saun, 58, was accused of setting up a team led by three senior aides to address a backlog of nearly 1,400 cases after it was made public by The Citizens’ Voice of Wilkes-Barre four years ago. She told them she wanted the backlog eliminated and did not care how, police had alleged in the arrest affidavit. 

Shapiro said the backlog accounted for three-fourths of the state total at that time.

Investigators said people who worked under Van Saun described her as a bully and tyrant.

The case involves referrals from the state’s ChildLine hotline that were improperly ended by clerical workers at her direction in May 2017. They included reports of children who came to school hungry, a child burned in the face when their mother threw a cigarette out a car window, an adult telling children to kill themselves, and a 100-pound child still using a diaper. 

Prosecutors have said three other former agency employees implicated in deleting the cases agreed not to serve in any position where they would be mandated to report suspected child abuse until at least 2025. They weren’t charged.