Gov. Tom Wolf and Republicans in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly have found common ground on one thing.
Republican legislators have deemed the 24 new child protection laws enacted in the last two years “a signature accomplishment.” Gov. Wolf recently wrote that these new laws ensure that Pennsylvania's government “works to better safeguard its children.”
Now they need to back that rhetoric with funding for child protection programs.
The horror of the extensive sexual violence perpetrated by Jerry Sandusky, once an esteemed Penn State football coach and mentor to vulnerable children, served as a tipping point in Pennsylvania. This tipping point, however, arrived only after elected officials ignored — for years — the harsh reality of children victimized by physical and sexual assaults as well as serious neglect.
It arrived well after an earlier state budget crisis during the Ed Rendell administration led ChildLine — the state’s child abuse reporting hotline —to drop nearly 10 percent of the calls it received. It arrived after physicians regularly identified how seldom a call to the hotline resulted in a child abuse investigation or a path to healing and services for the child. And only after more than 50 organizations petitioned state officials to examine shortcomings in how child abuse was defined, reported and investigated.
In other words, it took years of disregarding abused children before any tipping point was reached.
Where are we today? Are we any closer to making protecting children a priority?
It certainly feels as if Pennsylvania’s child protection motto could well be: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In June, Gov. Wolf exercised his right to veto the state budget, faulting it for being out of balance and for investing too little in public schools. His veto undercut a needed sense of urgency as well as essential public funding to safeguard our children.
In August, Republican lawmakers in the state House of Representatives interrupted their summer vacation to send a message about House Republican budget priorities. They attempted to override the Wolf veto of the budget and to restore funding to certain line items. Notably absent from this effort was funding for child welfare services.
Wolf would say Republicans shortchanged child welfare in the budget sent to him. Republicans would say there was no real reduction, rather some different ways of accounting for the dollars spent.
It is worth noting that both sides also found common ground when they supported elimination of a line item for children’s advocacy centers.
Child welfare caseworkers — responding to massive increases in calls from mandated reporters about vulnerable children, resulting in part from those 24 laws Wolf and lawmakers equally celebrate — take little comfort from the gotcha politics playing out in Harrisburg.
Caseworkers, police officers, private providers and nurses making home visits to help alleviate the stress experienced by many new parents do not have the time to keep up with the finger-pointing. Instead they are engaged in the complex work of trying to keep children safe and connected to nurturing and supported families.
Responding to a call of suspected child abuse is not a minor event. The response is consequential and can in some cases be the difference between life and death.
Gov. Wolf and legislative leaders might find motivation to resolve the state budget impasse by reading reports for the 400-plus Pennsylvania children who have died or nearly died from child abuse between 2010 and 2014.
Confronting the realities that too many Pennsylvania infants never celebrate a first birthday and that many young children enter school deeply scarred by trauma and abuse should prove incentive for Gov.Wolf and legislative leaders not to let politics get in the way of finding common ground on a balanced state budget.
Too many times in the past, Pennsylvania’s abused children have suffered in the shadows, overlooked by state government. Wolf and lawmakers must find common ground and choose a productive and child-centered path forward.
Together, they should act to immediately restore essential funding so suspected child abuse is properly investigated and every abused child is connected to interventions critical to healing and justice.
Once that job is done, they should be united in inviting every Pennsylvanian to use their voices, time and talents to nurture and protect our state’s most precious natural resource —our children.
Cathleen Palm is the founder of The Center for Children’s Justice, which aims to promote community responsibility so every Pennsylvania child is protected from abuse.