Thursday, August 8

Lost in the noise: What happens AFTER child abuse is reported.

Much has been made of the alleged failure to report child abuse by PSU officials, however, in Pennsylvania the real problem is what happens AFTER the call to ChildLine

Ray Blehar

The PA Task Force on Child Protection, convened in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, made numerous proposals in its with the intent of preventing future child abuse.  Unfortunately, most of the report's improvements focused on changes to the laws in how child abuse was defined, who should be required to report abuse, and stiffer penalties for those who fail to report.  In other words, the changes will increase the number of reports flowing into an already overburdened system.

Amazingly, the task force recognized that more reporting could make the child abuse problem worse.

The Task Force knew that mandating more reporting isn't the answer

Dean Richard Gelles, University of Pennsylvania, said this (on page 274):

"If our goal is to protect children who are in harm’s way, we will be unlikely to achieve that goal by expanding the list of groups and individuals required to make reports. Whatever the advantage of mandatory reporting laws, mandating reporting does not increase services to families or protection to children."

 Robert Schwartz, Executive Director of the Juvenile Law Center said this (on pages 275 and 276):

"Local child protection agencies (here and across the country) have always had difficulty making judgments about child protection. Instead of making it easier for CPS workers to do their jobs, our General Assembly, over many decades, has made it harder. . . . When we increase the number of acts and omissions that we call child abuse, and require more mandatory reporting and mandatory investigations of them, we reduce child safety. This is the paradox of child protection.

Drafters of child protection laws often imagine a call coming into a well-trained, experienced worker who can devote an unlimited amount of time to the call. The worker gets the facts, matches the call to the definitions in the statute, calculates who the perpetrator is, and makes a site visit. There she or he does a careful safety assessment and considers long term risks. The worker matches the child and family to an array of carefully crafted risk-management services, all aimed at promoting child safety and well-being. There is on-going, thoughtful monitoring of the case.

Even if everything went like that, child protection would be difficult, and fraught with misjudgments. But, of course, that’s not the way the system works. There is high turnover in child protective services units. Workers often lack experience. They don’t handle a single case, but many cases. They have fewer risk-management tools than they need. Caseloads are too high for everyone. Legislation that requires sending more and more cases into such a system risks hurting the children who are supposed to be protected by it. When thousands of children who are not at serious risk are referred to child protective services, the losers are the children most at risk."

Thus, even though the task force understood that increased reporting would not help in preventing abuse, the law of unintended consequences prevailed.   Despite considerable study and a 400 plus page report, the task force fell into the trap of reacting to the alleged issue (i.e., failure to report) that was reported to be the cause of the Sandusky scandal.  

In response, they:
-- expanded the legal definition of child abuse;
-- expanded the list of people who would be mandated reporters under the law; and,
-- increased the punishment for failing to report to a misdemeanor offense, rather than a summary offense.

The task force, however, also recommended other improvements to the system that hold promise for improving investigations, but likely did not go far enough.  More on that later.

Penn State didn't/doesn't know more reporting isn't the answer

At the recommendation of Freeh, Sporkin, and Sullivan (FSS),  Penn State implemented procedures to improve child abuse reporting on its campuses.  Policy AD72 was put in place on May 14, 2012 to outline the procedures to be followed in the event that an employee witnessed an act of child abuse.   

PSU hailed this new policy as "part of a focused and concerted effort by the University to become an academic and research leader nationwide in the protection of children." While the incidents of anyone witnessing child abuse on PSU campus have been exceptionally rare -- two known cases, of which one has now been debunked - PSU trained over 10,000 employees about child abuse reporting. 

PSU, also in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal, provided the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center with a $1.5 million dollar grant to provide assistance back to PSU to develop policies and protocols to prevent sexual violence.  You can read several of their stories on Sandusky scandal here, which point to failure to report (or in their term, "the bystander approach") as the cause.  

Again, the opportunity to make an impact on preventing child abuse was essentially lost by FSS's and PSU's misunderstanding that the failure to report abuse is not causing the problem or preventing further (future) abuse.

The right answers 

The task force did succeed in proposing some very good improvements to the system AFTER a report is received, however they did not go far enough.  While they proposed the establishment of more Children's  Advocacy Centers (CACs) and the use of Multidisciplinary Investigative Teams (MDITs), they did not establish an independent Office of Child Advocate that would serve as an ombudsman to maintain checks and balances on the system.

I referenced the MDIT in Report 3, as its formation is prescribed as a critical step of an investigation by the Department of Justice and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children:  Child Molester's A Behavioral Analysis.   However, what may not be well known to the general public is that the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law, as currently written, already requires a multi-disciplinary team.  To wit: 

23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6365.(c) Investigative team.--The county agency and the district attorney shall 
develop a protocol for the convening of investigative teams for any case of child abuse involving crimes against children which are set forth in section 6340(a)(9) and (10) (relating to release of information in confidential reports). The county protocol shall include standards and procedures to be used in receiving and referring reports and coordinating investigations of reported cases of child abuse and a system for sharing the information obtained as a result of any interview. The protocol shall include any other standards and procedures to avoid duplication of fact-finding efforts and interviews to minimize the trauma to the 
child. The district attorney shall convene an investigative team in accordance with the protocol. The investigative team shall consist of those individuals and agencies responsible for investigating the abuse or for providing services to the child and shall at a minimum include a health care provider, county caseworker 
and law enforcement official. 

Based on the history of the Sandusky case, it is clear that a health care provider was not part of the investigative team in 1998 or in 2008.  

MDIT Working Through CACs

Maisto Smith testified to the task force that sex crime investigations and prosecutions are very difficult, even more difficult than those involving homicides. Usually lacking clear evidence, they involve the word of an adult (at times a respected professional) against the word of a troubled child.  Concluding that good forensic interviewing is essential for prosecutions in the criminal justice system, she also emphatically stated her belief that the low number of substantiated cases of child abuse in the child protective services system is directly related to the inability of caseworkers to conduct good investigations.

A MDIT, led by a district attorney and including child protective services staff, police and victims’ services staff (all with expertise in child abuse and child sexual abuse), can collaborate with the CAC’s medical staff as well as the forensic interviewer. Typically, such a team observes the forensic interview of the child victim via closed circuit television.  The MDIT approach ensures that the various disciplines work, pursuant to an agreed-to protocol, from the time of the initial report of abuse to ensure the most effective coordinated response possible for every child victim. 

Obviously, the single CAC forensic interview reduces the potential trauma to children and families while respecting the rights and obligations of each agency to pursue their respective mandates. Children and youth administrators, police, county detectives and district attorneys testified that the gathering of evidence through a CAC is far superior to a scenario where a child protective services caseworker might be the first person to interview the victim as well as potential defendant.

Unfortunately, CACs exist in only 20 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, with variant organizational structure and operations. Some CACs were founded and supported by health care institutions, such as the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Pinnacle Health’s Children’s Resource Center in Harrisburg and Lancaster General Hospital.  (Note: There was no mention of the use of the CAC in the Sandusky case).  Obviously, taking these specialized forensic interviewers and pediatric medical professionals on the road for extensive periods of time deprives them of the ability to serve and care for additional child victims.

An Independent Office of Child Advocate

One of my recommendations in Report 1 was for the establishment of an independent Office of Child Advocate to oversee child abuse investigations and serve as an ombudsman for those whose issues were not resolved at the state (DPW) or local (CYS) level.

Currently, the only means of reporting concerns about child-welfare complaints exist in the Department of Public Welfare, the county agencies, and their contractors.  This presents an obvious lack of objectivity and, according to social workers and families I have spoken with, a "politicization" of the process.  

Again, the Sandusky scandal provides a good example of the "politicized" process.  Sandusky had a long-term relationship with DPW and CYS as a foster parent and an adoptive parent.  He had undergone reviews for over 20 years and passed every time, thus complaints about Sandusky fell on deaf ears.  The one time that DPW and CYS investigated Sandusky (in 1998), it was a cursory review at best.  

An independent Office of Child Advocate would add the necessary checks and balances on Pennsylvania's child-welfare system.   While this proposal went forward to the task force, it was not recommended for implementation.

The good news is that Kathleen Kane, who specialized in prosecuting Child Sexual Abuse cases, supported the establishment of this office during her run for Attorney General.  It is the hope of many child protection advocates that Ms. Kane will recommend the establishment of this office as one of the improvements resulting from her review of the Sandusky investigation.

For excellent resources on preventing child abuse and needed reforms to Pennsylvania's system,  please visit

1 comment:

  1. Ray: good points. It has been my experience that all levels of government take the easy way out and require more reporting. I have found that it seldom cures the problem(s).