HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania will get a new child advocate as part of a boost to state efforts to help the vulnerable children and senior citizens populations.
“Today is the beginning of a process to acknowledge Pennsylvania, over the past few decades, has failed to maintain our systems to protect and help our most vulnerable residents, and that must change,” Gov. Tom Wolf said Wednesday. “We’ve heard and seen the horror stories. Many stem from a government too eager to serve the needs of institutions and too reluctant to serve the needs of people.”
Wolf’s “Protection of Vulnerable Populations” Executive Order establishes an Office of Advocacy and Reform, maintained by the governor’s office with an executive director that includes a new child-advocate position and integrates the long-term-care ombudsman.
It will also create a Council on Reform, including 25 voting members appointed by Wolf, to look at protecting vulnerable populations from three perspectives: prevention and diversion, protection and intervention, and justice and support.
Wolf said he expects that council to issue a report by Nov. 1.
Wolf pointed to three cases as examples of the need for aggressive action by the state:
• Glen Mills School: The state shut down the Delaware County reform school in April after an investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer detailed 20 years of abusive practices;
• Wordsworth Academy: In 2016, a special-needs student died from asphyxiation after a scuffle with staff at the residential treatment center in Philadelphia, according to The Associated Press.
• Grace Packer death: In 2016, Grace Packer, a 14-year-old girl in Bucks County, was raped and murdered by her adoptive mother and the mother’s boyfriend. A state death review released in April found that child protective services had repeatedly interacted with Grace but the girl had suffered abuse throughout her life.
Those cases follow other high-profile scandals involving the state’s child protection efforts, including the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. In 2017, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released a report detailing how the state had revamped child abuse reporting requirements without providing funding to help counties deal with the flood of allegations.
Wolf’s announcement was welcomed by advocates and lawmakers who’ve been pushing for reforms to the state’s child protection system.
“Young people in institutions across the commonwealth are not safe or supported, nor do they receive an effective education,” said Kate Burdick, senior attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, based in Philadelphia. “The key to reform is moving away from a failed youth prison model; Governor Wolf is right to prioritize bold reductions in institutional placements.”
Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice in Berks County, said advocates have been lobbying for years to get the state to create a child advocate.
“It is critical that we acknowledge that fundamental questions still need answers. Among them: Will the advocate operate with independence and be provided with funding to accomplish the consequential work on behalf of vulnerable children?” Palm said.
Wolf’s push to boost the state’s efforts to protect its vulnerable citizens also calls for greater scrutiny of the way older residents are cared for, a move welcomed by the AARP.
Ray Landis, advocacy manager for the AARP in Pennsylvania, pointed to a January report by the state inspector general that documented how county agencies on aging were being flooded with complaints, often about possible financial exploitation of seniors.
Landis said that as more seniors seek to get care while remaining in their hopes, this effort could provide needed changes to help ensure that the agencies providing that care are being properly monitored.