Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Pennsylvania bill would expand child abuse reporting requirements

Posted Feb. 21, 2018

If someone tells Keith Bidlingmaier a child is being abused or neglected, the volunteer chief of the Fairless Hills Fire Co. is required to report it to child welfare authorities or face potential consequences including arrest.
But if Bidlingmaier personally witnesses suspected abuse outside his volunteer duties, he isn’t under the same legal obligation to report it.
It’s a loophole in the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law that one Montgomery County lawmaker — a former county prosecutor — wants closed.
Rep. Todd Stephens, R-151, of Horsham, said his legislation would explicitly require mandated child abuse reporters to make a report whenever they witness an abusive act. The bill unanimously passed out of the House Children and Youth Committee in January, the first step toward a full House vote.
“My legislation makes it clear to both mandated reporters and those who train them that reporting child abuse one has personally witnessed is paramount among the responsibilities that come with being a mandated reporter,” Stephens wrote in a co-sponsorship memo.
But the bill has received push-back from some child advocates concerned that it could lead to more erroneous abuse reports creating a backlog that delays child welfare response for children facing imminent danger.
Mandatory reporters include licensed health care workers, school employees, child care service providers, religious leaders, social workers, and other employees and volunteers who have regular, direct interaction with children including youth sports coaches and Sunday school teachers. Last year seven Pennsylvanians were charge with failure to report child abuse, according to state court data.
tephens said he learned about the reporting gap in the current law from a state organization that provides training in child abuse reporting.
Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance President and CEO Angela Liddle said the gap is something that comes up in virtually every child abuse training the organization does for mandatory reporters.
“People kept saying, ‘This doesn’t make sense,’” Liddle said.
Stephens agreed.
“Shouldn’t they be required to report what they personally see?” he said. “I think it’s pretty simple.”
But it’s not simple, according to some child welfare advocates and others.
Some mandated reporters have little, if any, child abuse training and only limited direct contact with children in the course of their job or volunteer service, child welfare advocates said. Pennsylvania doesn’t require volunteers be trained in child abuse recognition and reporting, though professionals must update the training every five years.
“If everyone is making calls because we want to avoid legal liability, it may mean we have a bucket of reports that is much bigger than what comes close to constituting child abuse,” said Cathleen Palm, founder and executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice, in Berks County. “That has implications in that, what is the magic recipe? Which reports do we respond to? Are we reporting because of liability purpose or because we really believe a child is a victim of abuse?”
State statistics show the vast majority of abuse reports are unfounded and the number is rising.
The number of confirmed abuse reports has declined from 12 percent in 2012 to 10 percent in 2016, the most recent year data was available. Meanwhile, the abuse referrals climbed 68 percent, from 26,352 to 44,359, over that same time period.
The data also shows that it’s taking longer to investigate abuse reports, creating a potential backlog that could take longer to work through.
According to ChildLine, the state’s child abuse hotline, the number of referrals reviewed within 30 days dropped from 49 percent to 44 percent between 2013 and 2016.
Bidlingmaier, the volunteer fire chief, also expressed concerns that legally mandating people to make judgement calls about things they see outside their volunteer service oversteps boundaries.
“What you don’t want to happen is a chilling effect on people who’d want to volunteer,” he said. “That is certainly a concern.”
Liddle acknowledged that the bill could lead to more unfounded child abuse reports, but protecting children has to take priority.
“What is the alternative?” she said.

State data collection on newborn opioid exposure has short shelf life

Posted Feb. 16, 2018

Pennsylvania health officials are getting their first-ever look at the number of infants born dependent on opiates and opioids, but the data collection initiated last month under Gov. Tom Wolf’s statewide disaster declaration could end soon.
The reports documenting infants diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) started trickling into the state Department of Health last week, according to agency spokeswoman April Hutcheson. The NAS data collection is among initiatives underway as a result of the Jan. 10 state emergency declaration in response to the growing addiction crisis in the state.
Neonatal abstinence syndrome is a collection of symptoms associated with withdrawal from opiates or opioids seen in newborns. The symptoms, including sweating, fever, violent shaking, intestinal distress and inconsolable crying, typically appear within a week after birth. Symptoms can be mild or severe and last a week or several months. Severe symptoms might require medical interventions to taper the infant off the narcotics.
“This data is yet another source of information to determine some of our communities most affected by the opioid crisis in Pennsylvania,” acting Health Secretary and Physician General Dr. Rachel Levine said. “We will be able to use this data to track where our most vulnerable are being born with symptoms of withdrawal so we can target intervention techniques as we work to reduce the number of cases of NAS.”
But the disaster declaration is scheduled to expire April 10. The governor could renew the declaration for another 90 days, but once the declaration ends, so does the mandate requiring hospitals and birthing centers to report NAS diagnoses to the state.
The prospect of losing the ability to collect the data concerns some child welfare advocates who have been urging the state for years to add NAS to the list of conditions that health care providers are required to report to the state. Currently, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee are the only states that mandate NAS reporting.
“Clearly it’s good that they are doing it, but they need to make sure the foundation continues,” said Cathleen Palm, founder and executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice in Berks County. “There really is no statutory or regulatory requirement to do it.”
Previously, NAS was only tracked using births paid by Medicaid, the government funded health insurance for low-income and people with disabilities. But the information was limited since Medicaid paid for only 32 percent of births in the state between 2012 and 2016.​
While the mandate to report the NAS data ends with the disaster declaration, it will provide state officials with a baseline for which counties and communities are seeing highest occurrences, and how prevention and intervention resources there should be targeted, Hutcheson said.
“It’s more data than we have right now,” she added. “It’s definitely a start.”
State health officials had planned to include NAS in a larger regulatory package updating reportable illnesses, a process that typically takes 18 to 24 months, Hutcheson said. She added the data collected during the disaster declaration will be used in that package. In the interim, hospitals and birthing centers could continue to submit NAS data, but they won’t be mandated, Hutcheson said.
Palm wants to see the state put something in place to ensure that data collection continues while the formal regulatory process to make NAS a reportable illness takes place.
“We need to make sure no urgency is lost,” she added.
More complete data will provide a clearer idea of the scope of the problem of prenatal drug exposure, but it’s what the state does with that data that concerns Beth Bitler, program director for the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance. She hopes that it is used to ease the ability to access drug treatment for pregnant women and mothers who are drug dependent rather than create more barriers that can result in poor outcomes for children.
“It’s good to have the data to understand the problem, but what happens to that data?” Bitler added. “The data is one piece of the larger picture of what happens to these children and their families.”

State to consider overhaul to sex offender registration law again

Posted Feb. 2, 2018

Nearly eight years ago, Bucks County resident Steve Gordon left state prison after completing a 10-year sentence for sexually assaulting a woman, but he was not quite a free man.
His conviction for aggravated indecent sexual assault meant that Pennsylvania State Police would be keeping tabs on him for another decade.
A little more than five years ago, though, Gordon, now 71, suddenly had state police monitoring him for the rest of his life, after state lawmakers replaced the previous Megan’s Law with a new tougher federal version.
The new law, known as the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, expanded and reclassified crimes requiring sex offender registration that was applied retroactively. It added an estimated 2,000 individuals to the sex offender registry and for roughly 4,500 ex-offenders, like Gordon, turned a 10-year registration into a lifetime obligation.
Then, last year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the Adam Walsh Act cannot be applied to individuals convicted before the law took effect on Dec. 20, 2012. But the high court did not provide any guidance for how the decision should be applied or what happens to the offenders retroactively added to the registry.
Now Pennsylvania lawmakers have proposed another overhaul of the sex offender law to prevent thousands of the roughly 22,000 ex-sex offenders currently on the Megan’s Law registry from being removed, including roughly half of the 500 Megan’s Law offenders in Bucks County. House lawmakers unanimously passed the bill in December and the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on it Monday.
The proposed legislation would turn back the clock for ex-offenders convicted before the 2012 law took effect, but still require they finish any original registration obligation under the old version of Megan’s Law, which was either 10 years or a lifetime. The bill also would loosen some burdensome requirements including giving offenders with lifetime registration obligations the ability to get off the registry.
The bill also would add a registration exemption for interference with custody of children if the defendant is a parent or other legal custodians of a victim child. The exemption was added as a result of a 2017 investigation by this news organization that found at least 34 people, most parents, were registered sex offenders despite never being charged with a sex crime.
The proposed exemption for parents and legal guardians convicted of interference with custody of children “more or less” is supported by the legislature, Aaron Zappia, chief of staff for Senate Judiciary Chairman, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Upper Moreland. Last year Greenleaf introduced a separate Senate bill to eliminate the same crime as a sex offender registration offense.
But other aspects of the bill could face scrutiny from committee members, Zappia said.
“There are a lot of questions about the 17,000 people that would be kept on the registry because of this legislation. My understanding is that some are sexually violent predators, some are not,” he added.
A step backward
Rep. Ronald Marsico, a Dauphin County Republican who drafted the new House bill as well as the House version of the Adam Walsh Act, believes removing sex offenders from the registry is the wrong direction for public safety.
“To allow potentially dangerous sex offenders to escape registration, as the (Supreme Court) decision provides, does not move the Commonwealth forward,” he wrote in a co-sponsorship memo. “Indeed, the decision is a step backward in terms of the safety and security of the Commonwealth’s citizens.”
Marsico believes mandating ex-offenders finish pre-2012 registration periods meets the constitutionality test since the state’s high court has upheld the requirement previously. The legislation also addresses a Superior Court ruling that found the process for declaring an offender a sexually violent predator unconstitutional.
The legislation does not address what will happen with ex-offenders who did not have to register before the effective date of the current law. This news organization was unsuccessful in attempts to reach House leadership spokesman Steven Miskin or Marsico’s chief of staff, Autumn Southard, for clarification.
Available studies show post-prison release recidivism rates for sex offenders are 5 percent or less years later. Additionally, researchshows that individuals convicted of sex offenses have the overall lowest rate of repeat offending among all crime categories.
Locally, none of the 28 Bucks County defendants convicted in 2016 of various sexual crimes involving children were registered on Megan’s Law prior to their arrest, according to a comparison of court records and the Megan’s Law registry. Three defendants pleaded guilty to sexual crimes that don’t require registration.
Attorney Aaron Marcus of the Philadelphia Defenders Association believes state House lawmakers missed an opportunity with the bill to bring the state into line with research-based validated strategies for managing sex offenders and determining who is at risk for reoffending that “actually make us safer.”
“There are dangerous people. We need to monitor them or incapacitate them when they do terrible things, which when done right, is done by the court at sentencing and probation or parole after release,” Marcus said. “Not a single study suggests schemes like this (proposed bill) work to reduce sexual violence.”
Marcus called the proposed registration exemption for interference with custody of children “silly.” He noted that the change offers no protection to other non-custodial relatives of a victim child, including grandparents, who could still be forced to register as sex offenders for non-sexual conduct, he said.
“Frankly, even for total strangers, if the reason for taking the kid is not sexual, you shouldn’t be a sex offender. It seems pretty simple to me,” Marcus added. “This (exemption) is not better, it’s just slightly less stupid.”
He added that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s latest decisions, bundled with its past rulings declaring other aspects of Megan’s Law unconstitutional, show a growing awareness among the judiciary that these laws are “garbage,” and courts are feeling more comfortable labeling them as punitive.
“I am not so sure if the evidence we have now is presented to a court, even (the previous version of Megan’s Law) wouldn’t be found punitive,” he added. “I think it would.”
For now, Gordon said he has moved on with his life over the last eight years. He has two part-time jobs. He takes care of his elderly mother, whom he lives with. He has avoided legal trouble. He has a longtime girlfriend.
The sex offender label has been a weight around his neck, he said, adding he’d be happy to go back to his old registration requirement, which he’d complete in two years.

Child welfare loophole remains open

Posted January 12, 2018
More than a year after Pennsylvania child welfare officials convened an expert group to address the growing problem of prenatal drug exposure, the state appears no closer to bringing itself into compliance with a federal law that requires health care providers and child welfare officials to take steps to protect narcotic-exposed newborns before hospitals discharge them.
Jim Greenwood
The situation recently compelled a former Bucks County congressman to reach out to key state policy makers urging them to provide “immediate” guidance to counties to ensure drug-exposed newborns are put on the child protection radar regardless of the type of drug the mother used in pregnancy.
Those referrals between health care providers and child welfare authorities should be happening now under a 2016amendment to the federal Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act, better known as CAPTA. But in Pennsylvania they aren’t always happening because of a conflict with state law that exempts babies born exposed to narcotics their mothers took under medical supervision, including heroin replacement drugs such as methadone, which are typically prescribed to pregnant heroin users as part of drug treatment.
In a letter sent last week, former U.S. Rep. James Greenwood urged state officials, including Attorney General Josh Shapiro and acting Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller, to provide joint guidance to counties regarding the CAPTA requirement for appropriate referrals and plans of safe care. The letter also was sent to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and the other Pennsylvania members of the U.S. House and Senate.
Greenwood wrote that while he supports efforts to develop comprehensive prevention and treatment strategies for prenatal narcotics exposure, the state needs to inform counties about the federal reporting requirement update.
“Pennsylvania infants born drug dependent today and in the upcoming months, urgently require two-generation plans of safe care focused on improving outcomes for the infant and his/her families,” he wrote.
Under a 2003 federal provision, which Greenwood wrote, states must have policies in place requiring health care providers to report newborns born prenatally exposed to narcotics or alcohol or that show signs of drug or alcohol withdrawal to child protection authorities; child welfare is required to assess the infant’s home environment and ensure a safe-care plan is in place, which may include services to drug-dependent parents and temporary supervision, before a child is sent home.
Greenwood, who now works for a biotechnology trade association, said in a phone interview the purpose of the federal law isn’t punishing pregnant substance abusers but providing an opportunity for child welfare and social services to intervene to make sure babies and their parents are in safe living environments.
“This is not about stigmatizing the mother at all. It’s about a yellow light that accompanies this baby into the world and society’s obligation to make sure this baby is safe,” he added.
The confusion over the reporting requirement is seen in state data, which shows a significant gap between the number of babies born drug-exposed versus the number reported to child welfare authorities, according to an analysis by this news organization. In 2016, the most recent year available, just under 2,100 Pennsylvania newborns whose births were covered under state-funded Medicaid health insurance were diagnosed with narcotic withdrawal symptoms, known as neonatal abstinence syndrome, but only 972 newborns with prenatal drug exposure were reported to county child welfare authorities, according to annual DHS data. Medicaid covered roughly 40 percent of births in Pennsylvania in 2015, the most recent year available, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The birth numbers did not include substance-exposed newborns born to mothers with private health insurance, who account for the majority of births, because no public agencies collect that data.
The Wolf Administration declaration of a 90-day state of emergency in the fight against opioid and opiate addiction Wednesday has no impact on the exemption since it is an existing state law, meaning any change requires legislative action. In an emailed response, AG spokesman Joe Grace stated that the Office of Attorney General is prohibited by state law from offering legal advice directly to counties.
Greenwood isn’t alone in his concern about the foot-dragging with CAPTA compliance.
Last year, Bucks County Rep. Katharine Watson, R-144, of Warrington, introduced a bill — in response to a story in this news organization’s ongoing Born into Addiction series — that would reverse the 2015 amendment to the state’s Child Protective Services Act that creating a reporting exemption for substance-exposed newborns in cases where the mothers were legally prescribed addictive narcotics during pregnancy.
Watson, who chairs the Child and Youth Committee, said she has backed off pushing her bill through the House — for now — at the request of the state Department of Human Services, which convened a multi-disciplinary group of child health and welfare professionals about 18 months ago to create a comprehensive plan to bring the state into compliance.
Watson said the work group regularly updates her about its efforts to develop infrastructure and guidance needed to support compliance with the federal law, including universal screening narcotic protocols for pregnant women and determining who is responsible for the development and control plans of safe care.

Born Into Addiction

A continuing series about the youngest victims of narcotics abuse, newborns who were exposed in the womb and children being raised by parents who are addicted to opiates like heroin and their synthetic siblings, like oxycodone and methadone.
Pennsylvania has received an extension until June 30, 2018, to comply with the CAPTA law, but the work group has offered no assurances the recommendation will meet the deadline. That lack of a timetable concerns Watson.
“Do you realize how many babies will be born while they work all this out?” she said in a recent interview. “I need more of the doing — to keep talking about it makes me crazy.”
Among the outstanding issue for the work group is determining who is responsible for creating the plan of safe care. Federal guidance under CAPTA does not specify that it’s the child welfare system’s responsibility in all situations, according to a state DHS spokeswoman, Rachel Kostelac. She added the work group is gathering information to ensure that any plans developed appropriately address the needs of the infant and any caregivers.
Cathleen Palm is the founder and executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice in Berks County. She also sits on the state work group on prenatal substance exposure. She confirmed the committee has met monthly for more than a year and recently added health care representatives that work with pregnant drug users.
“I think the challenge is we’re trying to figure out what is really complicated stuff in both policy and practices with moms and babies and how to balance what both need at a time when there is an ongoing opiate crisis,” Palm said.
While Congress directed states to develop plans of safe care for drug-exposed newborns, it allocated no additional funding for it, Palm pointed out.
She added that many babies are getting properly referred to child welfare and the system is becoming overwhelmed. Many families need core safety components that are beyond the scope of child welfare, such as stable housing, drug treatment, transportation and child care.
Palm agreed with Greenwood that immediate state guidance about CAPTA referrals is missing, and that it almost seems like pregnant and postpartum women are disconnected from other strategies for addressing the opioid and heroin crisis.
“It’s almost like that part of the crisis — let’s put it over there on the table,” she said. “We needed guidance and best practice before, but now we need it even more. What they should be telling people is we don’t want there to be a barrier to connecting babies and mothers who have some substance exposure to these plans of safe care.”

Friday, February 2, 2018

Trial dates set in Risoldi fraud case as Bucks seeks $164K in unpaid tax bills

Posted Feb. 2, 2018

A Chester County judge has given a prominent and politically connected Bucks County family until next month to make a $75,000 down payment toward overdue real estate taxes on four properties that are part of a $20 million insurance fraud case scheduled to go to trial next year.
Last month, Chester County Judge Thomas Gavin, who’s overseeing the trial of four members of the Risoldi family, ordered the payment to the Bucks County Tax Claims Bureau be received by March 1. If that doesn’t happen, a hearing will be held on competing motions involving the unpaid tax bill later in March.
More than $164,000 in unpaid taxes, penalties and fees is owed Bucks County for the Buckingham properties, according to the Tax Claim Bureau, which collects delinquent real estate taxes and sells tax-delinquent properties.
The bureau said that the real estate taxes have not been paid since 2015, the year the state attorney general’s office charged members of the Risoldi family with fraud and related offenses in connection with an October 2013 fire that heavily damaged the family’s 10-acre estate, Clairemont.
The state contends the Risoldis are the direct or indirect owner of the properties. Shortly after their arrests, the attorney general’s office seized the properties along with more than $3 million in vehicles and cash from the family, to preserve them as potential sources of restitution. The state estimates the properties are worth $2.3 million.
Gavin set the payment deadline to avoid a hearing on the unpaid tax bills, which ranges from $26,484.72 for a home in the 4800 block of Danielle Drive to $72,408.74 for the Clairemont estate in the 5700 block of Stonyhill Road.
The judge previously deferred action on motions brought by defendant Carl Risoldi, 46, of Buckingham, to release $50,000 in frozen family assets to pay the overdue taxes, as well as a motion from the attorney general’s office — which opposes the release of the seized assets — seeking to order the family pay the taxes.
In an email, attorney Michael Diamondstein, who represents Carl Risoldi, said that his client wants the taxes to be paid.
“Mr. Risoldi ... has no objection to the taxes being satisfied in full from the amount of money inappropriately seized and held by the Office of Attorney General for the last three years,” Diamondstein wrote. “The Office of Attorney General has refused that request and doesn’t wish to allow the taxes to be paid from the money that was seized from Mr. Risoldi.”
In its filing, the AG’s office contends that the Risoldis could have paid the taxes when they were due, but chose not to, citing a review the family’s 2015 financial documents that found they had access to more than $600,000.
Carl Risoldi and his sister, Carla Risoldi, 51, of Solebury, are listed as co-owners of Clairemont. Lower Makefield resident Karl Morris, a Risoldi family friend, is the owner of record of properties in the 4800 and 4900 blocks of Danielle Drive in Buckingham, where Claire Risoldi and Carl Risoldi and his family live. The AG’s office believes Morris bought the properties as a “straw buyer” for the Risoldis, who allegedly paid for them with “unlawfully obtained” insurance proceeds. Morris isn’t facing criminal charges in the case, officials said.
The fourth property in the 4800 block of Danielle Drive is owned by a holding company, Gemini Capital Limited Group LLC, a company the AG’s office alleges is owned by Carl Risoldi.
The Risoldi siblings and Morris don’t owe real estate taxes on other properties they own, according to county tax records.
Also last month, Gavin set dates for two trials involving the Risoldis. Claire Risoldi, 70, of Buckingham, who faces the largest number of charges including separate cases of witness intimidation, will be tried first on Jan. 14, 2019. The trial for her children, and Carl Risoldi’s wife, Shelia, 46, of Buckingham, is scheduled to begin March 4, 2019.
Gavin was assigned to hear the case after all elected Bucks County judges recused themselves, citing potential conflicts of interest since the Risoldi family has been prominent GOP supporters in the county.