Monday, May 21, 2018

Laughter is the best medicine: Lower Makefield’s Chris Rich tackles comedy and cancer

Posted May 20. 2018

Did you hear the one about the comedienne with brain cancer?
Chris Rich (R) talks with Carole Montgomery backstage
Keep reading. You will.
Life is a long series of potential punchlines waiting to be told. Redheads, shaving, a Scottish sheep shearer, Irish setters, near death experiences, pregnant husbands. Those are some of the ones that Lower Makefield resident and stand-up comic Chris Rich has perfected.
Rich is well known in professional comedy circles where career longevity is often as fleeting as Katy Perry’s latest hairstyle. She counts herself among the first tsunami of female stand-up comics that landed on comedy club stages some 30 years ago when the entertainment industry realized that, hey, women are funny, too.
Almost 20 years ago, Rich won a prestigious national comedy competition that secured her a long-running guest appearance on the Comedy Central network. She has opened for Jerry Seinfeld, Gilbert Gottfried and Roseanne Barr, and traveled the world performing with the USO. She spent three months at an Atlantic City casino performing with former “Jeffersons” TV star — and fellow Philadelphian — Sherman Hemsley. Today, as she, in her words, is “circling” her 60th birthday, Rich continues to work regularly at comedy clubs and other venues across the tri-state area and is working on a one-person show, “Hope Street,” based on short stories about her Irish ancestors life in America.
Most recently she landed at a packed Newtown Theater as part of the traveling live comedy show, “Women of a Certain Age,” delivering jokes and one-liners so dry Rich swept the crumbs off her chin. Her 30-minute set flowed from her experiences as a Kensington-born, “Norfeast” Philly-raised transplant living in “Hardly Yardley,” and her working-class Irish Catholic roots highlighted by the story about how every Halloween her parents dressed all six skinny, pale, red-headed kids in matching outfits, teased up their hair and sent them out as a pack of matches.
The mostly middle-age audience didn’t laugh; it screamed like 10-year-olds riding a roller coaster. Even Rich could barely keep from cracking up at times, covering her mouth like a school girl feigning shyness and twisting her face into cartoon-worthy reactions.
No one in the audience could have guessed that less than a year ago, Rich was diagnosed with cancer, her latest life-changing experience.
Triple threat
A talking matchstick is how Rich sees herself. It’s a description that also serves as the punchline to her signature joke about growing up in family of redheads. (“We had an Irish Setter, too.”)
Off stage, Rich more closely resembles Raggedy Ann’s skinny sister, with milk-colored skin, saucer-sized, clear blue eyes and the mischievous smile of a 3-year-old who just did something naughty. The radiation treatments for the cancer that she was diagnosed with last year stole her long, flame-colored Bernadette Peters-worthy ringlets. She’s opted for a short shag wig in a near-matching burnt orange.
Rich has called Bucks County home for the last 25 years, but her Philadelphia “ackkcent” remains so unmistakable while touring with the USO overseas in Japan, a native in the audience easily picked her hometown, she said.
Rich grew up in what she calls an Irish stew of characters, including a milkman dad, a nurse-turned-homemaker mom, a bar-owning grandpa and her comic idol, Uncle Jim, a U.S. Marine. She started training in childhood to be a triple threat (dancer, singer, actress) and carried a love for performing into adulthood, appearing in stage productions that included so many musical comedies that she boasts her appearances in “Oklahoma” qualify her for Farm Aid.
But, eventually, Rich could feel herself growing disillusioned with the theater. The best lines, the funniest lines, always seemed to belong to the guys. I can be funny, Rich told herself. A good comedian can take anything and build a good story around it. Life provides endless new material and jokes can take decades to refine. The moment she wrote the joke about the pack-of-matches childhood Halloween costume, she knew it would always get a big laugh. It still does, too. Every time.
Around the time Rich was transitioning from the legitimate stage to unpredictable comedy clubs, she started dating Mark Adami, a future high school horticulture teacher and amateur Appalachian folk dancer. The couple met at a mental hospital. (No joke.)
Adami worked as a groundskeeper at Friends Hospital, a psychiatric center in Northeast Philadelphia. Rich worked nights there as a part-time psychiatric aide, a job that freed her up for auditions and rehearsals during the day. Adami wooed her with a fresh-cut rose every time he saw her. The couple married in the hospital garden in 1991.
While Adami has dabbled (with his wife’s encouragement) in community and dinner theater, he has always been content to remain in the chorus, and occasionally the punchlines.
“It was very exciting for me. I’m riding on her coattails all the time,” said Adami, as he waited backstage at the Newtown Theater. “It’s given me, as an individual, an experience that if we led a normal lifestyle we wouldn’t have been able to do. It’s so much fun to live with her and be a part of her life. I could never do on a daily basis what she does.”
There was a time when Rich had doubts. When she started in comedy nearly 30 years ago, club owners and audiences were not used to seeing women comics. She believes her androgynous first name probably helped her land those early jobs.
She recalled stepping on the stage at a New Jersey club and watching a burly bald guy in the front row swear at her before turning his seat around.
But Rich didn’t let it throw her. She put the guy in her act, turning his back-turning into a prop. At one point, she pretended to shine his head before adjusting her makeup in the reflection.
The audience loved it. So did the guy. Eventually he gave in and turned back around, she said. He even laughed.
That kind of fast thinking is why comedian Carole Montgomery, the creator and producer of “Women of a Certain Age,” immediately thought of Rich when she was looking to rotate a new comedienne into her show. She has known Rich since their early days on the club circuit. Though Montgomery said she hadn’t seen Rich in a decade, she had no hesitation about hiring her.
“I’m very picky about who I let on my show. She is just a strong comic; as a producer that is the most important thing,” Montgomery said. “I don’t’ have to worry about what she is going to do. She can do anything.”
News of Rich’s cancer diagnosis didn’t give Montgomery any reservations.
“Comics have dealt with so much crap,” she said. “You make a joke out of anything life throws at you.”
Chris Rich on stage at the Newtown Theater

Heal thy funny bone
Next month marks one year since Rich found herself in a hospital emergency room with a severe headache and confusion. Imaging tests found evidence of a brain tumor, which doctors later confirmed.
Within weeks, she underwent surgery where doctors removed a malignant tumor on her right temporal lobe and created pockets in her abdomen where stem cells from her body were implanted. (“The scars make me look like I’m wearing a little Chanel suit when I’m naked.”)
A month later, she was back on stage at a country club in northeastern Pennsylvania. A week after that, she started 30 rounds of radiation treatments.
Cancer and comedy aren’t so different. Both can be ruthless killers. Good timing is critical to survival. As are patience, persistence and luck.
Luck is another Irish birthright Rich inherited along with her hair color.
After all, how many people can say they survived a plane crash? It was 25 years ago when Rich, who was one of two passengers (the other a minister on his way to perform a wedding) in a small-engine plane, survived after the plane crash-landed in Connecticut. The pilot and the minister abandoned Rich, who had suffered a shattered wrist, in the damaged plane. (“What sweethearts,” she added.)
Her wrist wasn’t the only thing left forever changed that day. Rich was left emotionally scarred, too. She lost faith in people. She lost a little of herself. Life didn’t seem as funny anymore.
Four years later, Rich still felt stuck between bitter and betrayed. She was still doing stand-up shows but her heart wasn’t in it. She didn’t think she had the emotional stamina necessary to make that crucial audience connection. It was a friend who pushed her into entering the second annual “Ladies of Laughter” contest, among the biggest comedy competitions around. To her, it was a no-pressure situation; a 10-minute set is easier than a draining 45-minute show.
“I liked the challenge. I needed something stimulating, not routine, to get my brain sparking again,” she said. “It was a nice escape from the round of hospitals and bad news my life had become.”
She wasn’t trying to win, she said. But she did.
“Welcome back,” Adami whispered in her ear moments after her name was announced, Rich said.
The win allowed her to put the plane crash behind her in the best way she knew how. She turned pain into punchlines.
As Rich told an all-female audience in 2011, when people learn she survived a plane crash, they tell her she looks OK.
“I’m glad you think I look OK,” Rich told the group. “Before the crash ... I was a man.”
Luck smiled on Rich most recently last year. She and Adami initially were told she had stage 4 brain cancer, the most advanced and life-threatening. But after doctors dissected the tumor tissue, it turned out it was stage 2, greatly improving the odds of her long-term prognosis.
Recently, Rich has noticed her earliest comedy routines, which she had given up on remembering, are coming back to her. On stage she will be in the middle of a story, and suddenly a phrase, a word, a punchline she forgot she knew, pops back into her memory.
She has already written her first cancer joke. But it’s not funny enough to share. Yet.
Cancer has changed her comedy, the same way it has changed her, Rich said. If she flubs a punchline during a performance, she doesn’t beat herself up. If someone doesn’t think a joke is funny, that’s OK. If a throw-away line doesn’t land how she expects, there is always another gig.
“Nobody can hurt me anymore.”

Criminal charge downgraded against Bristol Township woman accused of operating illegal day care where child died

Posted: May 9, 2018

The Bucks County District Attorney’s Office has downgraded a criminal charge against a Bristol Township woman accused of running an illegal day care where a toddler died last year.
Alivia Sawicki (L) and Jaimee Lee Gorman
At a preliminary hearing Tuesday, prosecutor Matt Lannetti formally changed the charge against Jaimee Lee Gorman, 36, from operating an unlicensed facility, a third-degree felony, to endangering the welfare of children, a first-degree misdemeanor. 
Gorman then waived her right to a preliminary hearing, sending the charge against her to Bucks County Court in Doylestown Borough for the next step in the legal process.
After Tuesday’s hearing, Lannetti said that the change was made because an endangering the welfare of children charge would prohibit Gorman from providing child care services in the future, something that a charge of operating an unlicensed facility would not.
In an email, a state Department of Human Services spokesman confirmed that endangering the welfare of children is among the offenses in the Child Protective Services Law that would bar someone from providing child care services.
Gorman, a single mother of three, remains free on $100,000 unsecure bail, which includes conditions that she not supervise any children other than her own.
Authorities allege that Gorman was operating an illegal day care center on June 16, 2017, the day 19-month Alivia Sawicki suffocated to death in a car seat that was left in a second floor bedroom of the home Gorman rented. A state-mandated review of the death found it appeared the chest buckle on the car seat pressed into Alivia’s neck when the child tried to get out of the seat, where she was placed for a nap. A 14-year-old relative of Gorman’s found the girl when she went to wake her.
The review, which was finalized in December, also found Gorman was watching nine children the day of the death; some days, the review found, she watched as many as 13 children. State licensing is required for child care providers regularly supervising four or more children who are not immediate family members.
The District Attorney’s Office initially declined to press charges against Gorman. But the case was reopened in March after this news organization began investigating the death after obtaining copies of state and county death reviews, known as Act 33 reports, that suggested Gorman was operating an illegal child care business.
Gorman’s attorney Michelle Grasso declined to comment on the decision to change the charge against her client, but expressed sympathy for the Sawicki family.
“This is a very tragic situation for everyone involved, especially for the Sawicki family. Our hearts definitely go out to them,” Grasso said. “This is an incident that will be etched in my client’s brain for the rest of her life.”
Reached Tuesday, Chris Sawicki said that he and his wife, Christina, who moved to Woodbury Heights, New Jersey, after their daughter’s death, were aware of the change in the criminal charge against Gorman. He urged state lawmakers to consider creating tougher penalties when children are seriously injured or die in child care settings.
“I feel that whatever the charge is, it doesn’t seem enough to get justice for our baby girl,” he added. “Nothing will bring her back.”
The state Department of Human Services, which oversees child care licensing and enforcement, confirmed Gorman was not a licensed child care provider, and that a state licensing investigator went to the home in the 1100 block of Fourth Street twice after Alivia’s death but no one was home. The state closed its investigation after unidentified “authorities” claimed the children in Gorman’s care the day of Alivia’s death were all family members, which would exempt her from licensing requirements. The DA’s office also stated previously it was told all the children were related to Gorman.
According to the probable cause affidavit, though, Gorman told Bristol Township police that she did not have a state license to provide children care services and police found more than four children in her care were not immediately family members.

Growing number of elder abuse reports in Bucks and Pennsylvania involve family members

Posted: April 22, 2018

When a longtime bank customer applied for a $12,000 loan, Thomas Maclin asked him the usual procedural questions, including what he planned to do with the money.
The answers made Maclin suspicious. The customer, who was in his 70s, told Maclin that he won a lottery, but he needed to pay the taxes upfront before he could get the cash.
Maclin immediately recognized the man was getting scammed. But while his boss at the time encouraged employees to be vigilant for scams targeting older customers, they weren’t told what they should do if they suspect something.
Maclin tried to talk the customer out of the loan, but the man wouldn’t change his mind. Since he met the bank’s lending guidelines, Maclin had to approve the loan.
The experience still weighs heavy on his mind five years later, said Maclin, who left that job and now is vice president of business development and manager at the Doylestown Borough branch of Monument Bank.
Financial exploitation has become one of the most frequent allegations of elder abuse in Bucks County and beyond, according to multiple studies and federal and state data. But its true extent remains largely unknown, under-reported and unstudied, much like elder abuse in general. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, experts have reported that knowledge about elder abuse lags as much as two decades behind the fields of child abuse and domestic violence.
Current estimates are at least one in 10 people age 60 or older are victims of some kind of abuse or neglect, with financial exploitation the fastest growing abuse category, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse. Those numbers are expected to keep rising with nearly one in five people in the United States age 65 or older by 2030.
Studies cited older Americans as more frequent targets for abuse because of physical and cognitive impairments and social isolation. One study estimated people with dementia are at a 50 percent higher risk for abuse. A 2014 study of more than 4,000 adults age 60 and older found that seniors living with extended family are at an increased risk of abuse, particularly financial exploitation.
Bucks County authorities allege those risk factors were present in a 2016 death of an 84-year-old Quakertown man, who died 12 days after he was hospitalized with what one trauma care nurse described as the worst case of physical neglect she had seen in her career.
Albert Weaver Sr., who had Alzheimer’s disease, was treated for deep, infected bedsores that led to septic shock, as well as infections of the urinary tract and toenails, and severe malnutrition and dehydration at the time of his death, according to court documents. Hospital staff also found bruises and cuts on Weaver, according to court documents.
Last month, four people, including three of Weaver’s family members, were arrested on charges of allegedly neglecting him; three of the four are accused of spending nearly $150,000 of his money on items and services that did not benefit him.
Albert Weaver Jr., 52, daughter-in-law Virginia Weaver, 49, granddaughter Amanda Weaver, 26, and Amanda’s boyfriend James Dorney, 33, all of Quakertown, were charged March 28 with neglect of care of a dependent person and reckless endangering. Virginia Weaver faces an additional charge of theft; Amanda Weaver and Dorney face additional charges of theft and conspiracy.
Authorities allege that Virginia and Amanda Weaver and Dorney all were responsible for Weaver’s daily care; Amanda Weaver and Dorney lived with Weaver Sr. in his home.
After his death, authorities reviewed Weaver Sr.’s bank records and found that during the last three years of his life, his family spent nearly $147,000 on items and services that did not benefit him, according to a probable cause affidavit.
The items and services the family allegedly used the elder Weaver’s money for included satellite TV service for Weaver Jr. and his wife, alcohol highway safety school for Amanda Weaver and her brother, a car loan and insurance for Dorney, traffic and non-traffic tickets for family members, and a loan payment in Weaver Jr.’s name, according to authorities.
An intimate crime
The Weaver case is among the roughly 1,200 elder abuse reports Bucks County receives annually, a number that has jumped 60 percent over the last two years, driven mostly by allegations of financial fraud against senior citizens, according to Chuck Danfield, supervisor of the county’s older adult protective services unit in the Area Agency on Aging. About 20 percent of reports — 240 — were substantiated as abuse, where without intervention the senior was at risk for harm, Danfield said.
At least one out of every three elder abuse reports in Bucks County each year involve allegations of misuse or taking of assets belonging to an older adult, and such cases are referred to the Bucks County Crimes Against Older Adults Task Force, Danfield said. About half the time, a financial abuse investigation finds evidence of other types of abuse as well, such as neglect or verbal abuse, he added.
Faceless abusers — like the ones behind the lottery scheme that Maclin encountered — are still a problem, Danfield said. A particular pitfall he sees with older adults is scammers promising a potential romantic relationship, but before long making requests for money or requests they be added to bank accounts or asking a victim to co-sign a loan.
Often when the person finally reports the abuse, it’s too late.
“By the time we get the information, the money is long gone and it’s extremely hard for us to help them recover money,” Danfield said.
A growing number of abusers are people the older adult knows, often a family member, Danfield said. Many times, he said, the victim has given the abuser their power of attorney, a legal document gives a person the ability to make all financial decisions on behalf of another person who is incapacitated, including selling a house or stock, or obtaining a mortgage in the person’s name.
“We see that is where a lot of abuse occurs. The perpetrator spends the money in a place the other person wouldn’t be,” Danfield said. “A bed-bound person is not at Victoria’s Secret, going to outlet malls or going to Disney World.”
Danfield recalled a case where a man who had the power of attorney for his 80-something-year-old mother used her money to pay for construction of an in-ground swimming pool. When confronted, the man claimed his mother wanted the pool.
“As power of attorney, (you) have the right to spend the person’s money and assets for them,” Danfield said. “You can’t use the money to buy a pool, to take a trip, to buy expensive things you normally couldn’t afford.”
Older adults also are reluctant to admit they’ve been abused or scammed because they don’t want to appear incompetent, which could result in a loss of independence, Michael Bannon, director of Bucks County Consumer Protection. His department also has seen a rise in family-related allegations of financial exploitation involving older adults.
Family loyalty and fear of abandonment are factors that often keep victims from turning in family members abusing them, Bannon said.
“It’s so intimate, it’s usually hidden, and only people close to that senior citizen may recognize it,” he added.
More vigilance
Pennsylvania, which has the fifth-largest senior citizen population in the U.S., has seen elder abuse referrals double over the last decade, jumping from 13,444 in the 2007-08 fiscal year to 28,632 in 2016-17, according to Drew Wilburne, a state Department of Aging spokesman.
Financial exploitation along with caregiver neglect tied as the most frequent abuse referrals last year in Pennsylvania, with each reporting roughly 7,455 cases opened last year, Wilburne said. Caregiver neglect cases had a slightly higher substantiation rate than financial exploitation — 21 percent versus 17 percent.
Neither Pennsylvania nor neighbor New Jersey include employees of banks and other financial institutions among the entities with a legal mandate to report suspected elder abuse, though both states require employees in the health care, legal and social service field or anyone working in businesses that care for individuals over age 60 to make the reports.
The Pennsylvania Department of Banking and Securities has led education and training initiatives for financial institutions about how to prevent, recognize and respond to suspected elder financial exploitation, agency spokesman Ed Novak said. So far this fiscal year, the department has led 37 trainings for about 3,000 people in its latest program, Senior Safe, which helps financial investment professionals identify “red flags” of suspicious behavior of clients, Novak said.
Over the last five years, the department has expanded the reach of its Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation prevention program from medical professionals to other professions such as social workers, cosmetologists and pharmacists. The program offers training on identifying signs of financial abuse or exploitation and how to react, Novak said.
Recently, the department started a separate training program aimed at lawyers and accountants, and it has partnered with the state Department of Revenue to launch a program for tax preparers. The department also is working with the Department of State to promote the training through its professional oversight boards, Novak said.
Novak credited banks and credit unions as among those institutions on the forefront of efforts to better protect older adults from financial exploitation.
After his experience with the lottery scam at his previous bank, Maclin reached out to Bucks County Consumer Protection for advice on how he should handle such situations in the future with older customers. He ended up joining the Bucks County Crimes Against Older Adults Task Force, which has helped him shape fraud reporting guidelines at Monument.
At his branch, employees are trained to spot signs of fraud and ways they can intervene without violating legal obligations to keep customer information private, Maclin said. One way is employees attempt to isolate the senior customer and ask questions, including if they are being coerced into making a transaction. If an employee spots a red flag, the incident is reported to Maclin, who is designated as the person who files a report with the Bucks County Crimes Against Older Adults hotline, the entry point for a task force investigation.
But Maclin still sees a lack of formal employee training in senior fraud prevention and intervention in the banking industry, especially among smaller, independent banks. While employees are encouraged to be vigilant, there remains a disconnect in how to react and report suspicions, he said.
He added that a mandatory reporting requirement might make bank employees feel more comfortable about reporting suspicions. He suspects that part of the reluctance for employees to report suspicions may lie with the legal obligation of financial institutions to keep customer account information and transactions private.
Still, Bannon and Danfield both agreed that they have seen an uptick in referrals among financial institutions over the last five years.
Bucks County’s Area Agency on Aging is fielding 20 to 30 reports of suspected financial abuse a month from banks and credit unions, though family members remain the biggest source of financial abuse or exploitation reports, Danfield said.
Many big banks have developed dedicated fraud departments with someone responsible for making referrals, Danfield said, adding almost all the major banks have made a referral at some point to Bucks County’s hotline.
Danfield is among those advocates who would like to see financial institutions added to the state’s list of mandatory reporters involving elder abuse suspicions.
“It would benefit a lot of victims we never find out about,” he said.

Judge delays Claire Risoldi jail sentence for contempt until federal decision

April 30, 2018

A prominent and politically connected Bucks County defendant in a $20 million insurance fraud case will remain free while a federal court considers an appeal of her 2016 contempt finding in a separate witness intimidation case.
Claire Risoldi in red
Chester County Senior Judge Thomas Gavin last week issued an order delaying the pending 30-day jail sentence for Claire Risoldi, 70, of Buckingham, until the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia makes a decision regarding a motion to overturn the contempt finding.
If the federal court denies the motion, Gavin ordered Risoldi surrender to Bucks County prison “on or before noon” on the third day after the order dismissing her motion is entered.
Gavin held Risoldi in contempt in 2016 for using the subpoena process to skirt a court order barring her from contacting prosecution witnesses in her insurance fraud case. The state Superior Court upheld that decision last year. Risoldi defense attorney Jack McMahon filed the federal petition in February, after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a request to hear an appeal of the finding.
McMahon has said he believes the contempt finding violated his client’s federal and state constitutional rights, including the right to participate in her defense against fraud and other charges in connection with an October 2013 fire that heavily damaged the family’s 10-acre Buckingham estate, Clairemont. Claire Risoldi also faces additional charges in separate witness intimidation cases including one that led to the contempt findings.
If the federal court judge agrees, the decision would vacate the state court contempt finding, and jail sentence.
Claire Risoldi and her son Carl, 46, of Buckingham, are scheduled to go on trial next year for participating in an alleged insurance fraud scheme. Two others charged in the case — Carl’s sister, Carla Risoldi, 51, of Solebury and his wife, Sheila Risoldi, 46, of Buckingham — have been accepted into a special trial diversion program that could see the charges dismissed if successfully completed.
For now, Claire Risoldi remains free on bail in her criminal cases. There is no indication how long it could take before a federal judge issues a decision.
Gavin is overseeing the Risoldi fraud case and related matters after all Bucks County judges recused themselves in 2015, when the criminal charges were filed against the family, which has close ties with the county’s Republican Party.

Pennsylvania moves closer to increasing protection for drug-exposed babies

Posted: April 27, 2018

Pennsylvania lawmakers are moving closer to fixing a loophole in state law that would ensure newborns with prenatal narcotics exposure are put on the child protection radar regardless of the type of drug their mothers used.
Yet some child advocates are concerned health care providers and child protection authorities would be left more confused over how to handle referrals if the law is enacted without written guidelines in place.
At least 525 newborns have been diagnosed with signs of narcotics withdrawal during the first 13 weeks after Gov. Wolf declared a state of emergency in response to the opioid and opiate crisis on Jan. 10, according to health officials. That works out to just under six births a day.
Pennsylvania is out of compliance with the federal Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act, known as CAPTA, which requires states to develop policies to refer newborns prenatally exposed to narcotics or alcohol or who show signs of drug or alcohol withdrawal to child protection and develop plans to keep the babies safe before they are discharged.
Pennsylvania law specifically exempts from those referrals drug-exposed children up to age 1 who are born to mothers who took narcotics as directed under medical supervision, including heroin replacement drugs such as methadone, which is commonly prescribed for heroin use during pregnancy as part of drug treatment, but can still result in Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS, a collection of symptoms closely related with opiate and opioid withdrawal. The federal government has given the state until June 30 to comply with CAPTA or risk losing $1 million a year in federal child welfare funding.
State lawmakers took a big step toward meeting the federal deadline last week when, during a Senate Youth and Aging Committee hearing, an amendment was added to a House bill sponsored by Montgomery County Rep. Thomas Murt, R-152, of Hatboro, that would require all schools in the state prominently display a poster containing statewide hotline number for reporting suspected child abuse.
Committee Chairwoman Sen. Michelle Brooks, R-50, introduced the amendment — which would take effect immediately if the law is signed — that was submitted by the state Department of Human Services. The bill was subsequently unanimously approved on Tuesday and now heads back to the House Child and Youth Committee for consideration.
The amendment would require health care workers report Pennsylvania children under age 1 identified as being affected by prenatal substance use or withdrawal symptoms and specify that the notification is “not deemed child abuse.”
The proposed change removes county child welfare agencies as the agency responsible for conducting the immediate safety and risk assessments and developing a safe care plan, but it doesn’t identify what entity will take over those duties or whom health care workers would contact to refer suspected drug exposed babies.
That is because those details have yet to be worked out.
The Departments of Health and Drug and Alcohol Programs, the entities responsible for creating the protocols for implementation of a plan of safe care under the amendment, still are writing those guidelines, according a DHS spokeswoman. DHS will identify a “lead entity” responsible for developing plans of safe care for children, and convening a multi-disciplinary team with an unidentified purpose, according to the amendment.
DHS Press Secretary Rachel Kostelac said state officials are continuing discussions with the Work Group for Infant with Substance Exposure, which has been meeting for nearly two years, to finalize recommendations for safe care plan protocols. She added that interim guidance would be issued, should the law be passed before the full protocol is ready. As of Friday, those guidelines are not yet in final draft form, she added.
The lack of interim guidelines has some child welfare advocates concerned.
The state protocols will be critical to effective community response for the infant, parents and their family, said Lynne Kallus-Rainey, director of Bucks County Children and Youth.
Cathleen Palm, founder and executive director for Children’s Justice in Berks County, who sits on the state work group, is among those worried that finalizing the protocols could take up to six months, but lawmakers will feel the pressure to hurry up and pass a bill to meet the June 30 deadline.
“If you can’t, on the same day this becomes a law, have a specific set of well-understood protocols and practices then we could be unintentionally creating loopholes where infants fall off the radar,” Palm said.
The delay in introducing legislation to bring the state into CAPTA compliance has centered on drafting a law that protects the drug-affected children but does not unintentionally punish the mother with a substance abuse disorder, a move that many child advocates believe discourages pregnant drug users from seeking or continuing drug treatment and prenatal care, Palm said.
Palm applauded the proposed amendment for specifying that referrals should not be deemed as child abuse as “quite significant and extremely instructive.”
“The language underscores that we want women to feel at ease honestly discussing their use of drugs so that they can receive treatment they need,” Palm added. “They can be prepared, as well as health care staff, for any side effects the baby might develop based on the exposure.”
Palm believes the proposed legislation gives Pennsylvania an opportunity to advance the public health approach to treating pregnant and parenting drug users, but it will require “hard, hard work.”
“We have to get real about what we mean and how we define a plan of safe care, how we triage the infant and family, and how it is determined who is the lead agency responsible for providing services, checking up on the safety and well-being of the infant and his or her family,” Palm said. “Overall I think that the legislation reflects we need to recognize not every incident, not every family, is the same. We have to consider their circumstance, that is the positive.”

Pa. Supreme Court temporarily pulls law license for former Lower Southampton solicitor

Posted April 16, 2018

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has frozen the law license of a former Lower Southampton solicitor who recently pleaded guilty to misleading federal agents investigating an ongoing corruption case in Lower Southampton.
Michael Savona
In a pair of decisions dated April 9, the state’s high court “temporarily suspended” the law license for Michael J. Savona, formerly of the prestigious Doylestown Borough law firm, Eastburn and Gray. The orders do not indicate how long the suspension will be effective.
Attorney Mark Sheppard, who is representing Savona, said Monday that his client initiated the suspension process with the state Supreme Court disciplinary board in December, when he began to withdrawal from legal practice.
“This was expected,” Sheppard said, describing the suspension.
Savona, who was Lower Southampton’s solicitor from January 2014 through December 2016, entered a guilty plea last month to a single charge of false statements in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. His sentencing is scheduled for June 12.
Authorities allege the attorney lied to FBI investigators about his knowledge of an alleged $10,000 bribe involving former Lower Southampton District Judge John Waltman, 60, of Lower Southampton, and former Public Safety Director Robert P. Hoopes, 70, of Doylestown Township, from a salesman seeking to erect an electronic billboard in the township.
Federal investigators allege Savona acted as a middle man between a former digital sign salesman, who allegedly offered a bribe to Waltman and Hoopes to lock in a reduced lease agreement for the proposed billboard. The deal later fell apart and the proposal never went before supervisors for consideration.
Eastburn and Gray requested, and received, Savona’s resignation on Dec. 6, one day after the release of a second superseding federal indictment in the Lower Southampton corruption case involving Waltman, Hoopes and former deputy state constable Bernard Rafferty, 63, of Lower Southampton. At the time, Savona was serving as solicitor in at least four towns in Bucks and Montgomery counties.
Waltman and Hoopes are awaiting trial later this year on charges including money laundering, conspiracy to commit money laundering and wire fraud, Travel Act bribery. Hoopes is also accused of witness tampering. Last month Rafferty entered a guilty plea to money laundering and mail fraud.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Advocates: Bucks, Pennsylvania reports missed day care violations in Bristol Township toddler death

Posted April 1, 2018

After a 19-month-old girl died last year in the care of a Bucks County babysitter who strapped her in a car seat for a nap, local child abuse professionals dug into what went wrong and how similar tragedies could be prevented.
Their recommendation -- better car seat education for parents.
Alivia Sawicki died while being cared for 
Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services, which had a representative at the local review, agreed with the findings in its subsequent report. The Bucks County District Attorney’s Office, also present at the review, found no laws were broken.
But months later, after the state and local reports were released, outside child advocates found both reviews overlooked apparent violations of state standards for child care providers including whether the babysitter was state licensed.
The report states the babysitter was watching nine children the day Alivia Sawicki died, but it says nothing about whether that contributed to her death. The report’s recommendations focused solely on car seat safety.
The review report stands in stark contrast to two other near-death reviews last year involving Bucks County infants also harmed while in the care of a babysitter who was not a family member. One of those incidents occurred three days before Alivia died and the second about a month later, according to the county and state reviews obtained by this news organization.
Both of those local and state reviews made recommendations that focused on child care issues.
The apparent disconnect between the circumstances surrounding how Alivia died and the findings of two state-mandated investigations into her death raises questions about how the reviews were done. Under a 10-year-old law called Act 33 of 2008, local and state child welfare and abuse experts are required to conduct separate, in-depth reviews when a Pennsylvania child dies, or nearly dies, under suspicious circumstances.
The purpose of the local and state reviews is to provide a window into the normally confidential world of child abuse and neglect probes, identify strengths and weaknesses in systems that serve children and families, and highlight emerging trends that might endanger children, according to the law.
But child advocates contend that Alivia’s case magnifies what happens when the state-mandated reviews focus narrowly on the role child service systems played in an incident, while overlooking details identifying broader issues that impact communities, such as the potential dangers of unlicensed child care providers.
“This one child’s death is showing how complicated and convoluted the whole Act 33 process has become,” said Cathleen Palm, founder and executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice in Berks County. “Often the main topic is what did child welfare do or not do, instead of what are the root causes of what happened or contributed to the death.”
Alivia suffocated to death on June 16, 2017, after she was not properly strapped into a car seat for a nap and left in a second floor bedroom unchecked for an hour, according to authorities and the death review.
The review reports stated that when she was found by a 14-year-old relative of the babysitter who went to wake her, it appeared the chest buckle on the car seat pressed into her neck when the toddler tried to get out of the seat.
The babysitter, Jaimee Lee Gorman, 36, of Bristol Township, was watching nine children the day Alivia died, the reports said, adding that Gorman sometimes watched up to 13 children a day.
Pennsylvania requires state licensing for child care providers who watch four or more children at a time who are not their own children, grandchildren, foster children or stepchildren. Licensed child care providers also must follow quality and safety standards including requirements that children be supervised at all times. It also forbids the use of ties or straps to restrain a child’s movement. Forbids volunteers under age 16 from assisting child care providers. Operating an unlicensed facility is illegal.
It was not until eight months after Alivia’s death, when this news organization started an investigation after obtaining copies of the death reviews, that the district attorney’s office reopened its criminal investigation into Gorman, who was charged March 9 with operating an unlicensed facility, a third-degree felony when a death occurs.
Bucks County Children and Youth Director Lynne Kallus-Rainey said in an email that the number of children in Gorman’s care was discussed at the July 12, 2017 death review meeting. The county report redacted the names of panel participants, but noted attendees included police, the county coroner’s office, county and state child welfare representatives, the county’s mental health department and drug and alcohol commission, and the Network Of Victim Assistance.
A Bucks County social worker assigned to the case, who also participated in the review, said she had “numerous” conversations with authorities after Alivia’s death about the number of children in the Gorman home, Kallus-Rainey added. A state DHS representative participated in the review. Bucks County Children and Youth officials also notified the state licensing bureau about the number of children in Gorman’s care after it received a report about Alivia’s death, Kallus-Rainey added.
But no details about those child care discussions made it into the six-page report. The local and state reviews mentioned only that Gorman was no longer watching any children, had moved out of the Bristol Township home after the death, and Gorman was not related to Alivia or her 3-year-old brother, who was also left in her care.
DHS spokesman Colin Day confirmed a licensing investigator went to the Gorman house twice after Alivia’s death, but no one was home. The case was closed after “authorities” said children in Gorman’s care the day of the death were all family members, which would exempt her from licensing requirements and regulations, Day said in an email response to questions.
But according to the probable cause affidavit in Gorman’s criminal case, she told Bristol Township police that she did not have a state license to provide child care services and that more than four of the children she was watching the day of Alivia’s death were not related to her.
It is unclear whether Bristol Township police, who have not responded to requests for comment about its investigation, participated in the county death review. The report redacted the name of the participating police department.
Kallus-Rainey declined comment on whether the relationship between Gorman and the children she was watching was made clear to the review team, stating she could not comment on items not included in the written report.
Under the Act 33 law, county review teams must have six members with knowledge in the prevention and treatment of child abuse. It encourages, but does not require, including individuals with early childhood education and child care knowledge and experience.
Alivia Sawicki
The second-level state review is done by representatives of the Bureau of Children and Family Services, the Bureau of Policy Programs and Operations, and the Deputy DHS Secretary’s office, according to the law.
None of the 19 Bucks County panelists who participated in Alivia’s death review had any identified child care experience, according to the report. Bucks County had a licensed day care operator as a regular review team member until the person moved out of the county, Kallus-Rainey said. She did not recall when the person left, but said it was before Alivia’s death. 
Local child advocates believe that had a child care professional been part of the review, the final report would have flagged the state violations and connected the alleged unlicensed nature of the home in the recommendations.
“In this particular situation, someone with that type of background and experience may have delved into some of the aspects of the case that were not as fleshed out as much because they have a greater knowledge and background of the law,” said Haven Evans, a training director with the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance.
The number of children Gorman was watching highlights the need for better oversight and training for family day care home operators and a statewide media campaign educating parents what to look for in out-of-home child care -- not better car seat education for parents, said Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia.
“This review would have been more meaningful with a child development professional at the table to help the group think about how much time and attention each child might demand,” Cervone added. “As well the rules and regulations on child care are themselves technical, suggesting need for a child care expert in case of such as this.”
Palm added that even if a local review misses something involving regulations or child services, the state review should connect the dots, since it oversees child welfare, services and programs and has that deeper knowledge base.
“The review doesn’t mesh with circumstances of the death,” Palm said. “If the state was really seriously looking at the report, they shouldn’t have missed the violations.”