In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case, the state Legislature passed 23 new bills aimed at improving protections for children. Some of those laws, including one widening the list of those required to report suspected child abuse, went into effect Dec. 31. Lancaster County Children & Youth Social Service Agency has been deluged with child abuse reports in the past two months.
That Pennsylvania wasn’t ready for the new child abuse laws is distressing, because the laws were long overdue.
ChildLine, the state’s child abuse registry and hotline, has been swamped by calls since the Sandusky scandal broke.
Caseworkers there had been working overtime even before Jan. 1.
There are too few of them, and the turnover is said to be high, because of the intensity of the work.
Tom Herman, president of Service Employees International Union Local 668, which represents ChildLine caseworkers, fears that “the inadequate addressing of this problem is going to produce a death.”
He says that as of last week, there were 28 caseworkers employed by ChildLine.
There should be at least 50, in his view.
We want people to call in abuse reports to ChildLine; that was the aim of making more people mandatory reporters.
But calls are being dropped and abandoned after lengthy waits. The system is being overwhelmed.
And this is promising, but the “time to decide more ChildLine staff was needed was not when they’re getting a thousand calls a day,” says Cathleen Palm of The Center for Children’s Justice. “It was before they were getting a thousand calls a day.”
These aren’t ordinary call center jobs. As Palm says, “You don’t just throw someone on ChildLine to start screening reports of abuse or potential abuse of a child.”
And it’s not as if we didn’t know what was coming. The first of the new child abuse protection laws were passed in December 2013, under the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett.
Lancaster County Children & Youth saw a 77 percent increase in reports of suspected abuse and neglect last month compared to January 2014. Other counties are reporting similarly high numbers.
We understand that these numbers were surprisingly high, but as the saying goes, you plan for the worst, and hope for the best.
The new mandatory reporters include volunteers who regularly accept responsibility for children. Because there hasn’t been adequate mandatory reporter training, some of these inexperienced people are calling ChildLine with questions, adding to the call volume.
On Feb. 9, Cathleen Palm and other children’s advocates sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf and leaders of the General Assembly asking for, among other things, an audit of ChildLine staffing.
Acting DHS Secretary Theodore Dallas outlined the steps the department had taken to address the staffing issues — including redeploying temporary staff — but he sidestepped the issue of an audit.
This audit must happen. The issues plaguing ChildLine need to be explored fully so they can be addressed for the long haul, and not just in a stopgap way.
When the new laws were passed, Palm says, “There should have been a response similar to a natural disaster, with a tactical communications team” delivering a consistent message and keeping everyone accountable.
Instead, she says, “Here we are, implementing 23 new laws, with huge implications for everyone from the Sunday schoolteacher to professionals (in the system) and we’re not doing it in a coordinated or accountable way.”
Says Palm: “You feel bad for the counties. You know what’s going to happen if they screen a case out too soon, and God forbid, something happens.”
Crystal Natan, executive director of Lancaster County Children & Youth, says her caseworkers now are working eight to 10 hours of weekly overtime.
That’s unsustainable, both for the agency’s budget and for the morale of Natan’s staff. “It takes a toll on caseworkers, this type of work,” she says.
She has gotten permission from the state to hire three additional caseworkers and another supervisor.
The county commissioners approved the county’s share of the funding last fall. But the state, which pays for 80 percent of the costs, didn’t approve the additional staffing until last month.
And now, it will take at least another month before the positions will be filled.
The Sandusky case was a shameful episode in this commonwealth’s history. These new child protection laws are intended to ensure that nothing like it ever happens again.
If the new laws are going to work as intended, we’re going to need a fully staffed, well-functioning ChildLine, and enough caseworkers in the counties to investigate child abuse reports.
That’s going to require adequate funding in next year’s budget, and the same political will it took to pass the new child protection laws in the first place.
For information about the new child protection laws and how to report suspected child abuse: keepkidssafepa.gov