Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Bucks, Montco seeing big uptick in child abuse reporting

Posted: Friday, July 31, 2015
Coco Wallace
Bucks County experienced a dramatic decline in the number of confirmed child abuse cases last year, ranking it the third-lowest county in the state, according to a recent report.

Roughly 5 percent, or 43, of the 830 abuse reports in Bucks County included in the state report were substantiated last year, down from 9 percent and 10 percent of the reports filed in 2012 and 2013, respectively, the report found. The only counties with lower rates were Montour and Sullivan, where no reports were substantiated.
In neighboring Montgomery County, the number of suspected child abuse and neglect reports as well as the abuse substantiation rates both jumped to nine-year highs, the state found. Last year, 12 percent of the 965 case reports filed showed that abuse or neglect were proven, according to the state report.
But the numbers could be deceiving, according to child welfare workers, since some 2014 cases are still under investigation by social workers or police departments. With recent changes in the Child Protective Services Law, agency officials expect reports and substantiation rates will climb next year.
Since 2012, the state Legislature has passed 23 changes in the law, including an expanded list of mandated reporters of child abuse, the definition of who qualifies as a criminal perpetrator of abuse or neglect and broadened the definition of abuse, which all took effect in January.
Some child welfare officials and advocates believe the impact of the law changes combined with the intense media coverage of the trial of former Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on child sex charges can be seen in Pennsylvania’s 2014 Child Abuse report, which was released Monday. But they anticipate greater changes next year.
In Bucks County alone the number of abuse reports for the first six months of 2015 nearly doubles the last six months of 2014. Montgomery County has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of child abuse investigations the first six months of his year. More reports in both counties are also resulting in criminal investigations.
The 2014 state report found the number of suspected child abuse reports statewide increased 9 percent last year — from 26,944 to 29,273. More than half of the state’s 67 counties also reported increases in suspected child abuse reports compared to the previous year, according to the report.
Also noted in the report is a significant increase last year in child abuse reports through ChildLine, the agency responsible for receiving, referring and tracking suspected child abuse and neglect allegations. The agency saw its call volume jump to 158,131 calls last year, an increase of more than 16,000 over 2013. About 18 percent of those calls resulted in child welfare investigations, the report found.
But only 11 percent of nearly 30,000 abuse reports were substantiated. The state’s substantiation rates have declined steadily over the last four years. In 2010, 15 percent of abuse reports were confirmed, according to the state. Among the substantiated cases last year, slightly more than half involved sex abuse, the report found.
ACCURACY QUESTIONED
The accuracy of the annual report has come under the scrutiny of a Berks County child advocacy center, which claims it has found inaccuracies and missing information in the data when compared with data posted online by the state.
The Center for Children’s Justice noted that the 2014 report includes 13 children who died or nearly died in previous years because the abuse investigations were not completed until last year. The report also doesn’t include four children in Allegheny County whose deaths were substantiated as child abuse, according to the center.
It also found more discrepancies involving the number of near deaths last year for five counties, including Montgomery, and counted 85 deaths or near deaths — not 83 — based on data posted on the Department of Human Services’ website.
Also missing from the state report is the case of 27-month-old Sebastian Wallace, of Middletown, who died in October. He is not among the 30 abuse- or neglect-related deaths statewide for 2014. The toddler’s name also was not included in the list of children who died during the fourth quarter of last year, though a state-mandated report on his case was posted online earlier this year — under the 2014 child death reports.
Sebastian died after he ingested prescription painkillers allegedly obtained illegally by his father, Coco Kollie Wallace, who is awaiting trial in Bucks County on charges of homicide and child endangerment related to his son’s death.
Sebastian’s case is pending in criminal court, his missing state-mandated death summary will be added to the 2014 fourth quarter report after the criminal case is closed, said Kathaleen Gillis, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services. His state-mandated Act 33 report detailing his death investigation, though, was posted earlier this month.
The unexplained delays in posting Act 33 reports has been an ongoing issue, said Cathleen Palm, director of the Center for Children’s Justice. Last year 83 of the 154 child deaths or near deaths were confirmed as the result of abuse or neglect, but only 35 state-mandated reports on the cases have been posted online as of Thursday.
The so-called Act 33 reports are required under a 2008 law designed to provide child protection workers, advocates and the public with details about the circumstances surrounding a child’s death or near death, including if child welfare services had prior contact with the family and if the agency complied with laws and regulations. The reports also make recommendations in an effort to prevent future incidents.
Palm acknowledged that the lack of transparency may be related to local district attorneys who are allowed to certify that an Act 33 report not be released because it could compromise an ongoing criminal investigation or proceedings.
Currently 20 district attorney certifications on death or near-death reports are still in place from 2014, Gillis said.
“We have to be better about our data,” Palm added. “We have to start making decisions about data and the data has to be more real-time.”
LEGAL SCRUTINY
Bucks County’s executive director of Children and Youth Social Services, Lynne Rainey, also believes the number of abuse reports resulting in criminal investigation is responsible for last year’s dramatic drop in the county’s substantiation rate.
The pattern has continued this year, she added. While suspected abuse and neglect reports recently have jumped significantly — from 388 during the last six months of 2014 to 680 the first six months of 2015 — the substantiation rate has remained at about 4 percent, Rainey said.
But currently, 19 pending abuse investigations are outstanding for 2014 and, so far, 22 reports are pending for this year, Rainey said. Criminal investigations into abuse reports take more time than do child welfare investigations into abuse allegations, she added.
“A number of those cases are eventually filed with an indicated finding upon a point in the process of the criminal justice system that all parties are in agreement will not jeopardize the investigation,” she said.
The new state abuse report noted that 237 reports statewide that were substantiated as abuse or neglect a year earlier were updated last year to reflect court activity, Gillis said.
In neighboring Montgomery County, child welfare officials also attribute a rise in criminal investigations into child abuse reports as contributing to a jump in suspected abuse reports, and substantiation rates. Since 2006, Montgomery County has seen a near 40 percent increase in abuse reports, according to state data.
Montgomery County Children and Youth Social Services Director Laurie O’Connor wouldn’t speculate about what is behind the increase, but she believes media coverage, particularly with the Sandusky trial, has made people more aware, and comfortable, about reporting suspected abuse.
She also believes the county’s multidisciplinary reviews, started in 2008, have helped increase substantiation rates. They involve child welfare and law enforcement conducting joint reviews of suspected abuse and neglect reports, and an emphasis on community education regarding the changes in the child protection service laws.
O’Connor also predicts that the change in the law that defines who is responsible for mandated reporting of suspected child abuse will help agencies get abuse reports earlier and start investigations faster.
Bucks County’s Rainey also predicts that the changes in the law will have child welfare agencies seeing an uptick in the number of substantiated child abuse reports that previously didn’t reach criminal levels but fell under general protective services.
More families are also being referred for general protective services when a child abuse report doesn’t meet the criminal definition of abuse, but the agency believes the family could benefit from additional social or parenting support services. The state report released Monday notes that ChildLine made 47,854 referrals for general protective services, such as counseling or parenting classes, last year — a 31 percent increase compared to 2010.
The rapid increase in abuse reporting is also beginning to overburden child welfare agencies, county officials said.
Bucks County cross-trained professional staff in conducting child protection service investigations in anticipation of the increased report volume, Rainey said. So far, the staff’s ability to respond has remained constant, she said, but high staff turnover leads to case transfers in mid-service, longer hours and heavier workloads.
“We are having an unprecedented turnover,” Rainey said. “We are trying to fill vacancies as fast as possible, but the revolving door has become a phenomena.”
In Montgomery County, O’Connor said her office requested additional staffing in expectation of an increase in reports as a result of the law changes; four new case workers were hired in January.
The department has a more compartmental approach by focusing staff on specific aspects of investigations, rather than assigning individual cases to social workers, O’Connor said. There are employees responsible for accepting and screening reports, others address immediate needs, and other staff focus on the investigation, she said.
“It’s more than just about staffing,” O’Connor added. “This new package of legislation has required children and youth agencies to take a look at how we operate and streamline operations where we can.”

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