|Coco Wallace as he is led away from arraignment|
Friday, July 24, 2015
Report: State lags on mandated child abuse reporting
Posted: Thursday, July 16, 2015
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @jociavaglia
In October, 27-month-old Sebastian Wallace died of an overdose after ingesting enough of his father’s alleged illegally obtained Oxycodone to kill an adult three times over. His 39-year-old father, Coco Kollie Wallace, is awaiting trial in Bucks County on charges of homicide and child endangerment related to his son’s death.
Nine months later, though, details of the child welfare investigation into Sebastian’s death remain largely unknown to the public even though a 7-year-old state law requires a report be released to the public within six months of a child’s death.
Even a state-mandated summary without specific details of Sebastian’s death — and the deaths of other children during the fourth quarter of 2014 — won’t be available until the state releases its annual child abuse report in the next few weeks.
Such delays are not unusual either, according to a Berks County child advocacy group, which noted that the annual child abuse report is supposed to be released by May 1.
When the Center for Children’s Justice on Friday released its latest report on child deaths and near deaths in the state, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services had released only two finalized reports online — one death and one near death, both in York County. Information from the investigations into another 66 confirmed child abuse deaths or near deaths during the first nine months of last year remained unknown to the public, according to the center.
But on Wednesday, after calls from the newspaper, DHS posted another 11 finalized reports, including six newly added deaths in the central and northeastern parts of the state.
Another 53 reports for last year are being finalized and could be posted within the next couple of weeks, according to an agency spokeswoman.
DHS spokeswoman Kait Gillis would not comment on the delay.
The Center for Children’s Justice’s latest report outlining data involving death and near deaths among Pennsylvania children shows that 163 children died and another 245 nearly died as a result of abuse or neglect over almost five years, between January 2010 and September.
More than 80 percent of the deaths, or near deaths, involved children under age 3, and many, like Sebastian Wallace’s, had a common thread of drug use, the center found.
Montgomery and Bucks counties ranked sixth and ninth, respectively, of counties in the state with the number of reported deaths or near deaths involving confirmed child abuse or neglect during the four-year span, according to the center’s report. Bucks County reported 10 incidents, and Montgomery County 14. Philadelphia led the state with 96 reported incidents.
The center’s report was based on information culled from summaries in quarterly reports filed with Human Services, as required under the 2006 state law, according to Executive Director Cathleen Palm. Those mandated summaries include basic, non-identifying information about child-abuse related deaths and near deaths.
What those summaries also show is a lag in the release of the finalized reports with details of the deaths that are required under Act 33, a 2008 law designed to provide child advocates and others with detailed accounts of the circumstances surrounding child deaths and near deaths in the state. Act 33 reports address details such as if the county child welfare organization was involved with the family, if the agency met compliance with any laws or regulations and makes recommendations to prevent future incidents.
The law also sets standards and timelines for local and state authorities for reviewing and reporting incidents, including the six-month release deadline. The only exception to the six-month rule is when a district attorney certifies that a report release might compromise a pending criminal investigation or proceeding, according to the state agency.
DHS’ Gillis did not say how many of the remaining unreleased 2014 reports fall under the certification exception.
Of the six newly added deaths to the 2014 Act 33 report, none were found to involve child abuse or neglect, though one case did involve criminal charges. All the reports indicate that they were finalized within the six-month deadline but not made public as required by the law. Of the newly added near death reports, none involved substantiated child abuse or neglect, half were finalized after the six-month deadline, but they weren’t released to the public either, according to online documents.
The time lag with Act 33 reports is an ongoing problem, Palm said.
The state has not released any new summaries on deaths or near deaths involving child abuse or neglect since Sept. 30. Those summaries will be included in the annual state reports, Gillis said. The 2014 summaries include 14 deaths or near deaths that occurred in 2013 and 2011 but were not substantiated as child abuse or neglect until last year, Palm said.
A similar discrepancy is seen in 2013. For that year, the center found summaries for 38 child deaths and 52 near fatalities related to abuse or neglect, but the Act 33 report lists only 26 fatalities and 38 near fatalities, Palm said. The number of Act 33 reports should outnumber summaries since they reflect both confirmed, and unsubstantiated, child abuse and neglect cases, she added.
The apparent disconnect goes beyond the discrepancies between quarterly summaries versus Act 33 reports, Palm noted.
The center’s report found at least four child fatalities in 2011 and 2012 that were substantiated as abuse or neglect in Allegheny County but not included in any state reported data, not even quarterly reports.
Other child deaths reported in the media also appear to be the result of child abuse or neglect, but those children are not found within state data either, Palm said. The incidents include an 8-month-old infant who died in a Bensalem hotel in July 2012. An autopsy of the infant found he had heroin in his system at the time of the death. Both parents were arrested and pleaded guilty to criminal charges, including endangering the welfare of children in February 2013, the center’s report shows.
The quarterly summaries and final Act 33 reports are critical for tracking trends with child abuse and prevention efforts, Palm said. Since no standard exists for summaries, the amount of detail varies widely, unlike what is found in the Act 33 reports.
“We know too little. Imagine trying to cure cancer with the same little bit of knowledge we have,” Palm said. “Why is it so hard to really know how many kids died and nearly died in Pennsylvania?”