SPECIAL REPORT: Pa.'s troubled child abuse laws
Pennsylvania's child welfare workers were caught off guard by last year's dramatic increase in reported cases of abuse, and key lawmakers didn't question what now appear to be rosy projections that their sweeping reforms to child-abuse laws would be cost-neutral, a York Dispatch investigation has revealed.
The lack of preparation and funding now has child welfare agencies struggling to keep up and the state's top fiscal watchdog warning that lives are at risk.
At the time, the reforms that took effect in 2015 appeared to be a rare positive result of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State, which led to national outrage and deep soul-searching in the Keystone State.
In the aftermath, Pennsylvania's Task Force on Child Protection was created to study a system that seemed inadequate. In 2012, after about a year of work, the panel of experts urged a massive overhaul of the state's child-abuse laws.
In 2014, lawmakers acted on the recommendations, approving more than 20 pieces of legislation that redefined child abuse, expanded the list of mandatory reporters and streamlined the reporting process, among other changes.
The reforms were fully implemented last year, and the new laws worked as intended. Reports of suspected child abuse — which had already climbed because of public awareness raised by the Sandusky case — skyrocketed.
The problem is it now appears no one was ready to properly cover the higher cost of better protecting Pennsylvania's children.
Lack of funding: No new money was initially earmarked to handle the anticipated increase in reported child abuse cases, leaving state and local child welfare workers unprepared for the influx.
Here in York County, the Office of Children, Youth and Families is operating under its third provisional license and has requested a state funding increase to pay for more staff it hired. Philadelphia, Dauphin and Luzerne counties also are operating under provisional licenses.
Offices are allowed four consecutive provisional licenses, meaning York County has two provisional periods left to correct faults before the state steps in and takes over.
Yet the state is having its own problems with the new child-abuse laws.
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale last week took the unusual step of releasing preliminary results of an investigation into Pennsylvania's ChildLine child-abuse reporting hotline.
His office found that 42,000 calls, or 22 percent, to the state's ChildLine child-abuse reporting hotline went unanswered in 2015, and numerous others weren't monitored by a supervisor or didn't generate reports.
Ted Dallas, the secretary of the state Department of Human Services, also is asking for more funding — $1.8 million — to address the issues.
“I’m sounding the alarm as early as I can on these issues, because even one unanswered phone call means there could be a child in a life-threatening situation who needs help,” DePasquale said in a statement. “The ChildLine system hasn’t been functioning in a way that leaves me any confidence that a child can get help when it is needed.”
'A joke': The lack of additional funding to enforce Pennsylvania's new child-abuse laws is a "disturbing failure," he said.
In fact, when lawmakers passed the bill that expanded mandatory reporting of suspected abuse — part of the 23-bill package in 2014 — they were told there shouldn't be any additional cost related to increased calls to the state's ChildLine.
Fiscal notes, which lay out the projected costs of implementing legislation, by the Republican House and Senate Appropriation committees attached to the bill, now known as Act 33 of 2014, said there should be no "increase in ChildLine calls that can't be absorbed within current funding."
“That fiscal note is a joke," DePasquale said when it was pointed out to him. “How anyone could think there is no fiscal impact is beyond belief."
Rachel Kostelac, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, said the fiscal notes were based on the best information available at the time, and officials didn't expect the number of calls to ChildLine to reach the magnitude they did.
"I think there were a lot of unknowns," she said. "We didn't know what to expect. We knew it would be an increase" but not such a large one.
Unasked questions: State Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, was on the House Appropriations Committee in 2014 and continues to serve on the committee. He said no one took issue with the assertion that the bill wouldn't require additional funding.
Though Grove now says he did consider questioning that, he didn't at the time.
“Whenever you do robust bills like that, you're going to have an increased cost," he said. “What actually happens, no one really knows."
DePasquale, a former state representative from York City, sees it another way.
“I think politicians try to pass bills that are politically popular but duck the consequences," he said.
Background: Reforming Pennsylvania's child-abuse laws was indeed popular in the wake of the Sandusky case.
A defensive football coach for decades under legendary coach Joe Paterno, he was convicted in 2012 of 45 counts of child sexual abuse and is appealing while serving a 30- to 60-year state prison sentence.
Former university president Graham Spanier, former vice president Gary Schultz and former athletic director Tim Curley were accused of failing to properly report suspected abuse by Sandusky and are still awaiting trial.
In an effort to prevent another scandal like the one that engulfed Penn State, the state's reformed child-abuse laws expanded who is legally required to report suspected abuse to authorities and also lowered the legal threshold of child abuse.
The intended effect is that more people are reporting more suspicions. While most people closely associate sex abuse with child abuse, by law abuse also includes neglect and mental and physical mistreatment.
Impacts: The number of referrals to the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families jumped 86 percent from 2,605 in 2014 to 4,842 last year, according to information The York Dispatch received through a Right to Know request filed with the county.
Doug Hoke, the vice president commissioner, said he has heard the laws, particularly the mandated reporting law, created a workload that is often too much for caseworkers to handle.
"I'm just not sure how much that was thought out," he said.
The answer to Hoke's question, many now say, is "not enough."
Calls to the state's ChildLine skyrocketed from 165,000 in 2014 to more than 188,000 last year, a 14 percent increase, Cathy Utz, deputy secretary for the Office of Children, Youth and Families at the state Department of Human Services, said during April testimony before the House Children & Youth Committee.
During the same time period, the number of reports that were investigated increased 42 percent, from 29,520 in 2014 to 42,005 last year.
Unprepared: "The lack of preparation by the (state) Department of (Human Services) and the lack of increased funding led to the problem" of dropped calls, DePasquale said. "There's no question the legislation led to more calls, but that was the whole point of it."
Tina Phillips, the director of training for the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, a child welfare advocacy group that offers training for mandatory reporters, agreed.
“It appears the problem lies in a lack of preparation,” she said.
The chairwoman of the state House Children & Youth Committee acknowledges lawmakers were caught off-guard. State Rep. Katharine Watson, R-Bucks County, said officials in 2014 expected a call increase but not such a large one.
“Admittedly I don't think anyone anticipated so much of an increase," she said. “They planned for something, but it wasn't enough.”
What now: The House Children & Youth Committee has held a hearing looking into child-protection services in the state, but some lawmakers say they won't be revisiting the 2014 laws.
Rather, they said, the hearings are meant to find ways to improve the current system.
"You have to provide adequate resources when you put those mandates on people," said Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, who sits on the committee. "We've got to dig into it to see what the issues are."
Watson, for one, suggests improving the system might include boosting funding.
She's long been a proponent of providing resources to county offices, she said. “We need to have more staffing, better-trained staff, and to attract the best and the brightest."
Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, questioned why spending more money is the first answer to a problem.
Wagner said the state should first look at creative ways of fixing the problem, such as better management or getting rid of under-performing staff handling calls that come in to ChildLine.
"Harrisburg, all they know is to throw more money or more personnel to the problem," he said.
Who to call
If you suspect a child is being abused, call the state ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313, or the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families at 1-800-729-9227 or (717) 846-8496.