New Castle News

March 4, 2013

Child abuse task force triggers legislation

John Finnerty
CNHI

CNHI — One January night in 2010, the parents of an infant boy in Mercer County determined he was having trouble breathing, so they allegedly put the 2-month-old outside and forgot about him. He froze to death. Mercer County Children and Youth Services had reportedly been warned about the family, but the caseworker couldn’t find the home, so no help was ever offered to the family or the baby.

In Northumberland County, a caseworker was notified a family who had moved into the county had been receiving services in Union County because an infant had been born with drugs in her system. The caseworker determined the mom was following recommendations made by caseworkers and closed the case. The child later died after being left unattended in an overheated room for 19 hours. During part of that time, the mother had left the home to go to a methadone clinic.

In Crawford County, in 2009, caseworkers had been alerted a mother had drug problems, while the agency was still assessing what type of services would be appropriate for the family, the mother allegedly smothered her 4-month-old son.

In Cambria County, a 10-month-old boy almost died in 2010 after being taken to a hospital with injuries adults in the home suggested had occurred when the child fell getting into the tub. Caseworkers had been already working with the family because the mom had tested positive for drug use during her pregnancy.

These cases from Pennsylvania child abuse reports reflect the pattern advocates say appears too often in cases of abuse — efforts to rescue children in crisis fail too often.

Over the most recent three-year period available — 2009 to 2011 — 49 percent of cases of child abuse deaths in Pennsylvania involved circumstances where children and youth services had been warned about problems in the families. In all, 54 children in Pennsylvania died over those three years after someone had notified a welfare agency a child was in some degree of danger.

Advocates for reform say the system relies heavily on front-line caseworkers who are often poorly paid, inexperienced and inadequately trained.

“You have to recognize that in this system, a lot of people applying this law were art history majors in college,” said Bucks County District Attorney Dave Heckler, who chaired the child protection task force.

Pennsylvania child welfare laws treat neglect and abuse differently. In neglect cases, the focus is on helping improve conditions in the home, but often, services are voluntary and if parents do not cooperate, cases are closed. The approach is increasingly being viewed as an effective way of helping families.

But the way Pennsylvania employs the strategy provides no uniform method of record-keeping or databases so other caseworkers or administrations can easily share information or keep files so they are easily accessible after a caseworker leaves.

This also creates problems in terms of oversight because it may be difficult to review exactly what a caseworker found or was told.

“We have no ability to look back in time,” Heckler said.

And when much of the documentation is being generated by inexperienced caseworkers, the record-keeping issues make it difficult for experts to help improve matters, he said.

On top of that, Pennsylvania’s fight against child abuse is hampered by an “utterly unworkable” definition of child abuse that uses a standard that is too restrictive and may deter doctors and caseworkers from identifying something as abuse when it should be, Heckler said.

The challenging definition deters doctors and caseworkers from sometimes labeling a child’s injuries “abuse,” out of concern it may be too difficult to prove.

It is a guessing game that creates situations where defense attorneys can make “atrocious arguments,” Heckler said.

The task force suggested the definition of “abuse” would be much more effective if the description of “severe pain” was replaced by “severe injury.”

Rep. Kathy Watson, a Republican from Bucks County, said lawmakers are working on legislation to correct the definition of abuse, just one of numerous legislative remedies expected to come out of the task force’s recommendations.

Watson said the task force has provided a road map the Legislature can use to make significant changes to the way children are protected in Pennsylvania.

“We think the stars are aligning,” Watson said. “We think we can get this done.”

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)