Monday, June 27, 2016

'Gifted' child case: 911 calls revealed little cause for alarm

Posted: Friday, June 24, 2016 

The young girls wore matching Amish-style clothing and had unkempt hair. They rarely were seen outside and didn't appear to attend school.

The only adult seen with the girls was a "creepy" looking man with long hair and a bushy beard who sometimes would hold an older girl's hand.
Those are some of the concerns that neighbors of Lee Kaplan claimed they reported to Lower Southampton police — long before another neighbor called Pennsylvania's child abuse hotline. That call led to a visit by county child welfare workers and police on June 16, and the discovery of a dozen children — including an 18-year-old who allegedly was "gifted" to Kaplan when she was 14, and the 3-year-old and 6-month-old children she had with Kaplan — living in a boarded-up, three-bedroom home on Old Street Road.
Police arrested Kaplan, 51, on charges of sexual assault and related offenses involving the oldest girl.
The parents of the oldest girl and nine other girls found in the house, who are former members of the Amish community in Lancaster, are charged with endangering the welfare of children. The father faces an additional conspiracy charge. This news organization is not identifying the girls' parents in an effort to protect the children's identities.
The trio remain incarcerated in Bucks County prison in lieu of 10 percent of $1 million bail each.
The high-profile case has raised questions about how police departments process calls and respond to complaints and concerns from the public. It also highlights a disconnect within state law that holds child welfare agencies to a higher standard of information sharing than law enforcement, according to child advocates.
Lower Southampton police insist they investigated the neighbors' complaints about the Old Street Road home, but none involved suspected child abuse or neglect. Public Safety Director Robert Hoopes said last week that the neighbors' calls about Kaplan's home were mostly about nuisance issues, such as trash-burning, overgrown grass and animals. Hoopes said the complaints made only a passing mention of Amish girls, but nothing to suggest the girls were in danger.
Reached at his home Wednesday, retired Lower Southampton Police Chief William Wiegman Jr. confirmed that officers previously investigated nuisance complaints involving Kaplan, but nothing involving child abuse suspicions. He also denied meeting with a resident who claims he filed a report last year about the welfare of children at the home.
Bucks County emergency dispatch records for Kaplan's property from Jan. 1, 2008, through the present do not show any calls suggesting concerns about children.
The records, which this news organization obtained through a Right to Know request, show that police responded to nine calls involving the address, including a chimney fire, reports involving alleged violations of local ordinances, harassment and a civil complaint. There were no 911 calls involving the home in 2010, 2012, 2013 or 2015, according to the records. 
Lower Southampton police visited Kaplan in 2014 after they received a complaint about excessive smoke from an outdoor grill, according to police sources. During that visit, police officers saw a small child, a baby and an older woman, later identified as the mother of 10 of the children found at Kaplan's home. Kaplan, who claimed he was Amish, said the older woman was the wife of his business partner and the family would be living in his home while their Lancaster home was renovated, a police source said.
A separate Right to Know request this news organization filed with Lower Southampton police seeking access to public police call logs involving Kaplan's home from January 2009 to June 20, 2016, is pending.
This news organization was unsuccessful in attempts to reach neighbors who claimed in media reports that they previously contacted police with concerns about Kaplan and the girls at his house.
Hoopes did not return a call from this news organization this week asking about his department's procedures and policies for processing calls from the public involving nuisance or neighbor welfare concerns.
How a law enforcement agency handles its record keeping tends to be dictated by the technology it uses, according to Pennsylvania State Police spokesman Adam Reed. For example, an entirely electronic filing system allows for greater filing of more information than paper copies, he said.
The state Child Protective Services Law requires school employees, child care workers, and medical and health care providers to report suspicions of child abuse to police. At this point in the investigation, it is unclear if the children went to school or visited medical care providers while they were living in Kaplan's home.
Police are also mandatory child abuse reporters, but unlike others they wear two hats, said Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia. Police are required to report suspected child abuse and neglect to child welfare authorities, but they also have the ability to conduct a parallel criminal investigation.
Neighbor complaints about “creepy” or “suspicious looking” adults around young children who are dressed in unusual clothing does not meet the low-bar threshold to justify a civil investigation under the child abuse law, Cervone said.
Children not attending school, though, is information child welfare authorities would be interested in checking, Cervone added.
Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Berks County-based Center for Children's Justice, said "there are circumstances that are not abuse, but do open the door to General Protective Services."
General Protective Services are provided to families to prevent the potential for harm to a child in cases where abuse or neglect reports are unfounded, but other red flags exist involving child safety, health and development.
Palm suspects police officers might not always be clear about what circumstances are appropriate for child welfare involvement.
"Here is where there is some real need to address the shared information," Palm added.
A check of a statewide database that identifies families that had prior child welfare involvement or investigations, for instance, could help police determine if an unfounded complaint might merit additional child welfare attention, Palm added.
Cervone also believes assigning liaisons within child welfare agencies and police departments who would be responsible for handling information related to reports of suspected abuse and neglect could not only improve agency communication, but better track information. He sees such relationships as crucial in counties like Bucks and Montgomery where there are many independent police jurisdictions operating.
"The problem is that police — rightfully so — are focused on crime," Palm added. "Someone calling and saying these kids don't dress right or seem to be going to school, that might not rise on some law enforcement radar there is a potential crime there. But it might have Children and Youth going, 'We should be looking deeper into it.' "

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