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'We Work For The Community': Marc Cherna Reflects On 25 Years Of Human Services In Allegheny County

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Marc Cherna near his home in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.

When Marc Cherna applied for a position leading Allegheny County’s child welfare department more than 25 years ago, he didn’t think he’d get the job.

Cherna had worked extensively in New Jersey’s child protection system, but the native New Yorker didn’t see himself leaving that part of the country.

“Just as a lark, I put in my application because I was ready for a change,” he said in an interview last week.

“But I never expected to leave the Northeast and didn't know anything about Pittsburgh. And I was asked to go to interview, and I did it for what I felt was the experience of the interview and they really engaged me.”

He ended up getting the job, and took it, “thinking, I’ll just be here for a few years,” he said.

He will retire from the Allegheny County Department of Human Services next month, after leading the agency since 1997.

He became the county’s child welfare director in 1996, following a nationwide search for a leader who could turn around the troubled department.

“The community despised us,” he recalled, of the time when he first arrived. “There were tons of demonstrations and frustration with the lack of services and the lack of … quality things that we were doing.

He is widely credited with completely transforming the agency – from one that had financial problems, a backlog of adoptions, and wasn’t serving children, to one that is now seen as a national model.

When Allegheny County merged its child protective services, along with aging, mental health, intellectual disabilities, drug and alcohol treatment, homelessness services, and other safety net programs into one department in 1997, Cherna was asked to become the first director of the new department.

Cherna said he has several things he is proud of during his time leading the agency, but raising DHS’s standing in the community stands out.

“We work for the community,” he said. “We work for the taxpayers. They pay our salaries. Those are the folks who we serve because we serve over 200,000 people a year. So they have a right to demand excellence. They have a right to demand customer service. And the best quality, you can be treated respectfully, and all the rest of it. So I think, you know, the one of the things I'm most proud of is that we have that for the most part, people feel like they are getting good service and they are being treated right and that it's a government that works and that is not, that doesn't happen much around the country that we have quite a good reputation around that was built through the years.”

The agency has attracted national attention – and some controversy – for its cutting edge use of algorithms in child welfare screening.

“I mean, it's I think it's really the … future and the way to go,” he said.

Erin Dalton, an executive deputy director at DHS, will take over next month when Cherna retires.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.