HARRISBURG – Dramatic changes in child protection laws could strain the system meant to intervene and stop abuse, but state and county leaders are struggling to understand just how much.
The changes – inspired by statewide shame and outrage over the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal – take effect Jan. 1. The rules broaden the definition of child abuse, how it's reported and who is required to report it.
In Lawrence County, state officials predicted the local Children and Youth Services Department will need four more people on its 31-person roster, according to County Commissioner Dan Vogler. The state will cover 80 percent of the cost of new personnel, with the county paying the remainder.
The department has yet to formally request new employees, Vogler said.
Each county must determine how many more people it needs, said Cathy Utz, acting director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families. But a legislative analysis of the new child law put the price tag at $6 million – with the state covering $4.74 million, and county and federal dollars picking up the remainder.
The state budget for 2014-15 includes an additional $26 million for counties, Utz said, though that money isn't specifically earmarked for child protection.
Local officials say the state Welfare Department is working diligently to inform them about the changes.
“There is an awful lot being done to make this as smooth an implementation as possible,” said Brinda Penyak, deputy director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
Despite those preparations, she said, there could be bumps.
“It’s a human system. It’s going to be unpredictable,” she said.
Among the law's biggest changes is encouraging people who work with children to report any suspicion of abuse. Those required to report include school employees, contractors or volunteers; police officers; health care workers; social workers and ministers.
Under the old system, a teacher might pass along a suspicion of abuse to a guidance counselor or principal, then leave it to the administrator to decide whether to notify child protection officials.
Under the new law, the teacher must directly make the report.
This change is largely reflective of the role Joe Paterno played in the Sandusky scandal at Penn State. The iconic football coach, upon hearing an allegation of misconduct, is said to have notified his superiors who then decided against notifying child protective services or police.
The law also broadens definitions of abuse. Under the new law, abuse includes bodily injury, as well as unreasonably restraining, shaking or slapping a child under the age of 1, causing serious mental harm to a child or exposing the child to sexual abuse. Pennsylvania's old definition hamstrings investigators too often over questions about how to do demonstrate that the abuse resulted in "extreme pain" to the victim. As a result, too many cases are closed as unsubstantiated because the state's definitions are too narrow, said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice, an advocacy group.
Expanding the definition won't necessarily mean more allegations will turn up, just that the caseworkers will handle cases differently, she said.
Palm said she and advocates like her will be vigilant to see whether local caseworkers are overwhelmed – and wether the state's ChildLine hotline can manage any spike in cases.
“ChildLine remains off the radar. It always has been,” she said.
Utz said the hotline for abuse allegations struggled to handle a spike in calls after the Sandusky case. Last year it fielded 140,000 calls – a 20 percent increase from four years earlier.
There were complaints that operators missed calls, Utz said, but state officials had difficulty determining the extent of those problems.
Officials suspect some callers hung up and redialed after being stuck on hold. The state doesn’t know how many people gave up trying to reach an operator.
Utz said it’s unclear how many more calls will be prompted by the changes in the law. The state also plans to launch an online reporting form as an alternative to the hotline, she said, making it easier for people to report suspected abuse and easier for complaints to be forwarded to local caseworkers.
Online reporting was not possible under the old system, and computers used by many counties wouldn’t have been able to handle electronic reports a few years ago, she said.
Palm said another unknown is whether the increase in reporting will create situations where counties begin identifying more children who are not abused, but who live in families that could benefit from some other type of social service.
“What is challenging is connecting the dots,” she said. “If we don’t, then you’re spotlighting problems but not helping families solve their problems.”
Child abuse reports, selected counties
• 2013: 258 allegations; 39 substantiated (15 percent)
• 2004: 187 allegations; 32 substantiated (17 percent)
• 2013: 342 allegations; 47 substantiated (14 percent)
• 2004: 278 allegations; 43 substantiated (15.5 percent)
• 2013: 150 allegations; 33 substantiated (22 percent)
• 2004: 138 allegations; 36 substantiated (26 percent)
• 2013: 151 allegations; 26 substantiated (17 percent)
• 2004: 178 allegations; 43 substantiated (24 percent)
• 2013: 26,944 allegations; 3,425 substantiated (13 percent)
• 2004: 23,618 allegations; 4,628 substantiated (20 percent)