To Better Protect Children, Outrage Must Bring Effective Action


Pennsylvanians spend a great deal of time railing against real and conjectured faults of state government.  Yet, the relentless criticism often overlooks some of the most harmful deficiencies in performance.  Documentation of the saddest sort confirms this is certainly the case in regard to the flaws and overburdens afflicting the child protection system.

Twenty years ago, a couple of notorious deaths of children under the oversight of Children and Youth Services led to passage of corrective legislation.  Too much confidentiality in the system was preventing necessary cross-agency communication and cooperation.  Contacts with high-risk kids were too infrequent.  Death reports were not accessible, making it tough for anyone to figure out where there were failures in practice or policy.  So laws were changed and regulations and practices upgraded.

But even after the reforms were put into place, systemic problems remained.  These included low salaries, high turnover in personnel, caseloads exceeding prescribed ratios, and emotional burnout.  Such a combination of negative factors proves challenging for even the most experienced and capable managers.  Incremental progress has been made in intervening years, but the system has been heavily stressed.  Repeated tragedies along the way let us know all is not well.

Further, risks in child protection were underscored by a little noted incident that occurred last year.  The CYS office in Luzerne County was firebombed by a parent angered over an adverse custody determination.  In a compelling show of dedication, workers carried on their business in the parking lot outside.  This incident is a graphic reminder caseworkers are dealing with troubled and frequently volatile family dynamics.

Two developments have compounded the difficulties.  First, the Sandusky scandal led to substantial changes in law built around mandatory reporting.  Public outcry demanded quick political response.  No one, however, was anticipating or toting up the true costs of compliance.  The impact is simple to figure – more reports warrant more investigations.  Added costs piled on an underfunded system unavoidably prove problematic.  The second is even more significant – the opioid crisis has magnified abuse and neglect.

Today, the headlines are dominated by the sexual assault and harassment and abuse of position scandals engulfing Hollywood, Washington, and power centers across our nation.  With multiplying revelations, direct consequences are kicking in – firings and resignations, public humiliation, civil lawsuits and criminal complaints.  The change in climate, recognition, reaction, and response is long overdue.

In contrast, the children who are victims of abuse and neglect do not have celebrity status.  Occasionally, tragic circumstances shock our conscience.  But for the most part, these kids are statistics.  Battered and neglected children do not have a hashtag campaign to spotlight their plight or provide a platform for their voices.  The hard truth is a crisis that casts shame on all has long had trouble climbing the priority list for action.

Fixes are not cheap.  To match the functioning capacity of the protection system with the dire need requires a substantial investment of dollars.  Given the recent history of state budget crises and worries that rising obligations portend an enduring structural deficit, the chances of addressing this crisis through a tax increase are zilch.  Shifting money from elsewhere has a high degree of difficulty, due to the low priority state government generally gives to child protection.  This is irrespective of whether the leadership is Republican or Democrat, conservative, moderate, or liberal.  Without urgency attached to shoring up child protection, additional state dollars will be plowed into education and other traditional priorities, as the latest budget proposal again reinforced.

The dimension of the child protection problem should be no mystery.  State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale thoroughly documented the shortcomings in a 2017 State of the Child report.  This is not the standard catalog of government waste, corruption, and indifference.  Rather, it depicts a structure with too many demands and too few resources to adequately cope, resulting in unacceptable numbers of deaths and serious injuries.  Bad choices lead to tragic outcomes.  The auditor general has been holding community hearings to get a deeper understanding of the problems and challenges and to raise the profile of the problem.

Just about everything needed to fix the child protection system cuts against the grain of the public mood.  More money.  More government workers.  More intrusion into the lives of families.  In an anti-tax, anti-spending environment, who wants to cast votes for mundane items such as additional personnel, higher salaries, and better recordkeeping?

To address this, constructive suggestions are emerging.  State Senator Lisa Baker recommends assembling for child protection an Interbranch Commission comparable to the esteemed panel that overhauled juvenile justice in the wake of the notorious Kids-for-Cash scandal.  In this case, it is not necessary to devise answers.  A commission could concentrate on building the political will and public buy-in for the evident steps required to better protect children from abuse and neglect.

Another notable advantage plays into this debate.  Child advocacy groups are incredibly dedicated in their efforts and persuasive in their arguments.  They are fewer in comparison to the interests involved in issues such as education, health care, environmental protection, and community development.  But the intensity of their pitch and the emotional impact of the heartbreaking stories of harm they relate should find a larger audience among state officials and community leaders.  Crisis is a word that is commonly and casually tossed about, but in the case of child protection the dangers and devastation are real, for the victims and for the workers, when things go horribly wrong.

There is no prospect of overly activist courts imposing a new operating map here.  The executive and legislative branches bear the burden for approving structural reforms that will increase the scope and effectiveness of efforts to better protect kids.

David A. Atkinson is an Associate with The Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Susquehanna Valley Center.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.