New Castle News

March 12, 2013

Legislators to tackle child abuse , protection issues

John Finnerty
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Even if someone is arrested, the Department of Public Welfare may not consider a child’s death to be child abuse

It has happened at least seven times in Pennsylvania since 2008. In six other cases, the welfare department was told never about the deaths so no determination was made about whether the killing was abuse, said Donna Morgan, a welfare department spokeswoman.

Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Protect our Children Committee, the advocacy group that documented the unacknowledged child deaths, said the gap strikes at the heart of the shortcomings in the way Pennsylvania deals with child abuse. The state's unwieldy standard for determining what constitutes child abuse is among the key problems identified by the child protection task force created in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse cover-up scandal.



ACTS NOT INCLUDED

Between 2008 and 2011, the Protect our Children Committee found 32 cases when an individual was charged in connection with a child’s death but the incident was not included in reports on child abuse published by the state Department of Public Welfare.

The Cambria County killing of Justin Charles Jr., a 7-week-old baby, was among the cases documented by the group. In that 2011 case, the baby's father was arrested and charged in connection with the death. Justin Charles Sr. pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and was sentenced to 15-30 years in prison.

“The bar should be lower for the civil designation of abuse than it is for criminally prosecuting a case,” said Palm. “In Pennsylvania, it’s backwards.”



ABUSE ACKNOEDGED

In more than half of the cases identified by the advocacy group, the agency has since acknowledged that abuse was involved, said Morgan of the welfare department.

Morgan said the agency determined there was sufficient evidence to substantiate 15 of the cases identified by the Protect Our Children committee. Those incidents have not been included in public reports due to a backlog in substantiating and documenting abuse cases, Morgan said.

“We are having internal discussions on how to revise the process of reporting fatalities and near fatalities so we can complete them in a more timely fashion,” Morgan said.

Four cases are still undetermined and six were not reported to the welfare department as suspected child abuse. In seven cases, the welfare department determined that the allegations did not meet the legal definition of child abuse.

Palm said that the Protect our Children Committee’s findings illustrate the shortcomings of the way the state defines abuse.

Morgan said files about the cases in question were not available yesterday, so it was not entirely clear what issue had prevented the agency from describing the deaths as abuse.

However, Palm said advocates believe one of the major issues is that Pennsylvania relies on antiquated terminology that does not reflect the real-world relationships involved in many families in crisis.

In Pennsylvania, an act is only considered child abuse if the perpetrator is “a parent, a paramour of a parent, an individual (over the age of 14) living in the same home as the child, or a person responsible for the welfare of a child.”

Child protection task force members noted that under Pennsylvania’s definition of abuse, Sandusky’s crimes were not child abuse. Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State, was sentenced to 30-60 years in prison for molesting boys he met through a charity he founded.



WHAT IS ABUSE

A House children and youth committee has already held hearings on six bills that would tackle issues including  improving training for those who might see child abuse, and extending whistle-blower protection to anyone who reports child abuse. The committee has not yet considered any legislation tackling the issue of re-examining the basic question of what is considered abuse in Pennsylvania.

At a hearing last month, Kathy Watson, chairwoman of the House committee on children and youth, said  lawmakers are working on a bill addressing that issue.

Palm said advocates believe the shame brought on by the Sandusky scandal creates a rare opportunity to reform Pennsylvania’s child protection system in ways much more far-reaching than the problems exposed at Penn State.

After the child protection task force was created, the committee put out a “bucket list” of reforms it hoped might come out of the review. It included prevention, improving the way Pennsylvania defines abuse, how the child protection system responds to a report of abuse and improved accountability for both perpetrators and  caseworkers who are supposed to intervene to protect children.

The questions about properly documenting abuse deaths indicates how difficult it is to hold a system accountable when there are questions about the credibility of data  released to the public, Palm said.

“We decided to look at abuse deaths because we thought it should be black and white,” she said, “but in Pennsylvania, it’s not.”

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)