The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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June 2, 2013

Child abuse reports up in Pennsylvania

Move to redefine terms stymied in legislature

HARRISBURG — Reports of suspected child abuse rose 9 percent last year in Pennsylvania, reaching the highest number since the state began collecting such reports a decade ago.

In 2012, ChildLine, Pennsylvania’s child abuse hotline, registered 26,664 reports of suspected abuse or neglect; an increase of 2,286 reports from the previous year.

Joan Benso, president and executive director of the Pennsylvania Partnership for Children said most experts attribute the increase to the “heightened awareness” of Pennsylvanians jolted into vigilance by the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

The percentage of child abuse reports that were substantiated fell slightly - from 14 percent in 2011 to 13.4 percent in 2012, according to a newly released annual report by the state Department of Public Welfare.

In Mercer County, reports of suspected abuse were stable over the last two years. In 2011, there were 238 reports, 51 of which were substantiated. In 2012 there were 235 reports, with 41 substantiated.

Benso said the numbers remain somewhat skewed because many of the incidents reported as suspected abuse do not end up getting cataloged as “substantiated,” simply because the state’s standard for child abuse is outdated.

Adjusting the definition of child abuse is one of the key legislative remedies recommended by a task force on child protection. But while correcting the definition might seem like a simple matter of editing, the effort has become the center of a smoldering controversy in the Legislature, said David Heckler, a former state lawmaker who chaired the task force on child protection.

Central to the standoff are concerns that the state’s well-intentioned effort to spell out abuse will turn Pennsylvania into a nanny state where parents are in legal hot water for disciplining their children.

“In my day, if you wanted to stand up and vote in defense of your constituents’ right to beat their kids, then you could do that. Now, they try to deal with these things in committee to avoid controversy,” Heckler said.

He pointed to an exchange in a hearing after he discovered that language that would specifically make it illegal to “restrict the breathing of a child,” shake a baby or strike a child under the age of 1, had all been stripped from the bill.

Heckler said he questioned that move and had a lawmaker defend the move.

What would happen if you were in church and your child began to cry and you cover his mouth with your hand? Would that violate the provision against “restricting breathing.”

Heckler noted that when he’s been in church, he’s always seen parents manage to hustle noisy children out of the service rather than smothering them.

“That’s the kind of paranoia” the must be overcome, he said.

It is a stumbling block in what has otherwise been an encouraging march toward reform as there numerous bills in both the Senate and House that are designed to make changes suggested by Heckler’s task force.

But the most important thing might be fixing the communication gap between caseworkers who investigate neglect complaints and those who may later need to respond to abuse allegations.

Benso said one of the most important steps the Legislature must take will be to provide the Welfare Department with the money to update its computer systems to better track complaints.

Heckler noted that another important move would be develop a database for caseworkers and police to chronicle every single interaction between a person and Children and Youth.

One of the repeated failings in the system is that caseworkers may investigate a complaint about a specific problem in a child’s living situation only to close the case as soon as that problem is corrected. Then, if the family moves, the information about the prior episode gets lost, Heckler said.

An example of how neglect cases can fall through the cracks with fatal consequences might include a shaken baby case in Cambria County.

The child abuse report documents how the child’s family had “extensive history” with caseworkers in the year’s leading up to the death of 2-month-old Justin Charles Jr.  County caseworkers had intervened to try to help the family five times between 2005 and 2007 due to poor housing conditions and questions about hygiene in the home.

Those cases were closed when the parents decided to have their children live with relatives, the report found. The agency was notified in October 2011 that the couple had a new baby, but caseworkers did not respond to the report.

Two months later, the baby was dead and his father Justin Charles Sr. was arrested. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15-to-30 years in prison. The other children in the home now live with a grandparent, the Welfare Department report states.

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