Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Tuesday, May 16, 2017
2016 child abuse report not accurate representation, child advocates say
Posted: May 13, 2017
Fourteen-year-old Grace Packer was raped, beaten, drugged and murdered over 18 hours in Bucks County in July 2016. Her dismembered remains were positively identified in early November.
The next month, Bucks County authorities named her mother as a person of interest in the death. But Grace isn't counted among the 46 children who died in Pennsylvania last year from abuse or neglect, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services 2016 annual child protective services report released May 2.
A Montgomery County toddler is counted among the 46, though the 2-year-old girl died in July 2015, after authorities said her mother failed to get medical treatment when the girl overdosed on prescription pain medication in a King of Prussia motel room. The mother was charged with manslaughter last year.
This news organization found eight other deaths that occurred prior to 2016, but were included in the report covering last year's fatalities — including one in 2013. Among the 79 near-deaths of children included in the state report, two occurred in 2015 and a third happened in 2014.
A DHS spokeswoman said the agency counts deaths and near-deaths from abuse or neglect in the year in which the agency opens an investigation — which isn't necessarily the year when the crime occurred. The notification triggers a mandatory timetable for county and state child welfare officials to determine if abuse or neglect occurred, under a 2008 law called Act 33.
The way the DHS records these deaths and near-deaths in its annual report has raised concern among some child advocates. They believe inaccurate yearly counts can make the situation look less serious than it is, reducing government attention to potential abuse and neglect cases. They also say it could decrease government efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect and result in government resources being redirected to other areas.
Cathleen Utz, deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Office of Children Youth and Families, defended the system, saying: “Somebody has to call us (for the clock to begin)."
DHS officials didn't respond to a call and email seeking additional reaction to child advocate concerns.
In Bucks County last year, one of five child deaths and three of four near-deaths reviewed by child welfare officials were found to be the result of abuse or neglect, according to state data and county officials. The others were counted among the state's 30 deaths and 54 near-deaths in which abuse or neglect couldn't be substantiated. Determinations are pending in 18 deaths and eight near-deaths.
Findings of abuse and neglect often aren't finalized until a criminal investigation is completed — and sometimes not before the prosecution is completed, according to Bucks County Director of Children and Youth Lynne Rainey. "We review each situation in great detail and learn from those individual fatality reviews that we conduct," Rainey said.
Though she died the year before, Grace Packer was reported with the 2017 deaths, since the agency wasn't officially informed her homicide was the result of suspected child abuse until Jan. 9. That was the day after her mother and the mother's boyfriend were charged with the killing, according to DHS spokeswoman Rachel Kostelac.
Packer's death review is due to be completed this month, but officials said it won't be released publicly — probably until after the criminal case concludes.
The trial for Grace Packer's mom and boyfriend is scheduled for January 2018.
In Montgomery County, child welfare officials substantiated three near-deaths and one death as the result of abuse or neglect last year. The case of the 2-year-old who died after ingesting pills is the only one that occurred before 2016.
Montgomery County’s director of children and youth, Laurie O’Connor, declined to comment on how DHS counts deaths and near-death reports, but noted that data in the state report makes it clear that changes in the reporting laws are increasing the volume of abuse cases.
“Keeping kids safe is the No. 1 priority for Montgomery County," O'Connor said. "It is our job to investigate those reports and we take that responsibility very seriously.”
Philadelphia said accurate annual data is especially important since child welfare and social services agencies have limited budgets and don’t want to concentrate money in the wrong area. He added that each child death and near-death also requires close examination to help child welfare services and advocacy agencies spot problems in the protective services system and correct them.
“If we are not getting accurate data and accurate stories, it’s hard to find where the system is not really working,” Cervone said.
Without timely data, child welfare advocates and officials might fail to recognize trends that could trigger faster efforts at raising red flags and initiating calls for policy changes, said Cathleen Palm, executive director and founder of the Center for Children's Justice, a Berks County child advocacy group.
Reporting delays also put the lives of other children at risk, Palm added. If a Bucks County infant died of an unsafe sleeping situation and — months later — two children in Cambria County died from the same situation, recognizing those deaths or near-deaths could spur the state to remind other county child welfare agencies to make sure caseworkers review proper sleeping conditions with parents of young children, Palm said.
“Two or three years is too late to find out we have a trend going on. This should not be a treasure hunt," Palm said. "A child’s death or near-death should always be a time to learn, to collaborate and to act with urgency to protect each and every child in that community."