With the plague of mass shootings afflicting America, the casualty toll adds up quickly and alarmingly. Child abuse claims victims one or two at a time, but is so pervasive that these sad numbers pile up too. While each sparks calls for adding effective preventative measures, emotionally fraught debates, rallies, and marches over gun violence tend to drown out those intended to counteract abuse.
Pennsylvania has unfortunately suffered tragic incidents of deadly abuse that shock the conscience. In terms of depraved actions and despicable mindsets of the perpetrators, the abuse and murder of Grace Packer in 2016 is chilling and sickening. No surprise, a report released by the state Department of Human Services cited a sea of red flags missed by those supposed to be Grace’s protectors. There is simply no way to downplay the implications. The circumstances of Grace Packer’s abuse, torture, and murder make for extremely hard reading. But there are other children, in nearly every corner and community of the state, who are suffering appalling abuse and neglect because the system is overwhelmed and underfunded, a judgment that is universal.
Whenever a tragedy occurs, reviews are undertaken. To a skeptical public, that sounds like standard operating procedure, buying time until outrage settles and other issues grab the spotlight. The officials who must explain process and intentions do not make anyone feel any better or negate the tragedy of severe injuries and deaths. Round robin finger-pointing is no salve either. In fairness, the frustration is felt as deeply by well-meaning folks inside the system as by those on the outside. Yearly reports document the difficulties caseworkers must overcome.
Twenty years ago, legislation was approved over systemic opposition to improve record sharing between counties. The intent was to prevent abusers from moving about to stay out of the clutches of justice. Based on the Packer investigation, either that fix did not take or it did not last.
Not long ago, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale audited Child Protection Services, cataloguing deficiencies and recommending reforms. He trekked across the state calling attention to the dangers faced by at-risk kids. The situation is a five-alarm emergency. Nothing contrived or blown out of proportion about this one. Yet, as happens all too often in our fast-paced society, with short attention spans, public and media move on to the controversy du jour.
Compounding the problem, too few officials seem inclined to undertake the very hard and time-intensive work of once and for all shaking up and properly funding the system. Governor Wolf, in what has become a patterned response, announced executive actions. These steps are meant to be protective of at-risk kids, and some good will result. Trouble is, these steps also shield the system.
Naturally, any governor wants to control the narrative. Across administrations, there always seems to be fear that acknowledgement of systemic deficiencies will lead to runaway accusations, costly litigation, and unwanted political consequences. Even though an administration inherits the problems, child protection is rarely an early priority for the incoming team. As politics goes, “you bought it, you broke it” is the presumption. Even in the worst cases, confession is incomplete. The Packer report was revealing, but heavily redacted.
There is a marked pathway to a bipartisan solution. Senate and House bills propose the creation of an Interbranch Commission on Child Protection, comparable to the one on juvenile justice reform a decade ago. That story remains quite instructive. When the facts started to emerge on the Kids for Cash scandal in Luzerne County, most people in positions of responsibility treated it as a lamentable aberration. Undaunted, advocacy groups and a handful of legislators successfully turned up the pressure for a thorough examination of the system by experts.
There are very few examples to match the ability and the intensity of the members of that panel. They asked piercing questions, laid bare the lack of checks and balances in the structure, and swatted away “not my fault” justifications. This display of concentrated leadership produced four dozen recommendations. Each branch of state government needed to act. Numerous changes in law, regulation, rules, and practice were put into place. Several legislative actions went further than the commission recommendations.
What better model for investigating and repairing the child protection system? We learn a great deal when folks are sworn in, give testimony before an expert panel in open session, and are forced to confront the shortcomings of the system, overall and in specificity.
The creation of such a commission does not contradict or set aside the auditor general’s findings. Rather, those findings are an essential foundational piece on which this inquiry can build. No longer is it a matter of statistics. Faces and names and stories of victims are central. The public gets to hear from real people called to account to explain deficiencies and render a view on reform, instead of spokespersons deflecting the ugliness in a welter of words.
Granted, no system will ever be perfectly fail-safe. But the holes in the existing structure are such that preventable tragedies could easily spike. Risk rises. More individuals seem motivated by anger, resentment, depression, and selfishness to act in an abusive and deadly manner.
Imagine if all the energy and emotion spent on reacting to distant crises and manufactured controversies were instead channeled toward fixing a child protection system begging for repair. Nothing limits activism or debate or solution-seeking to the Cause of the Month. A serious commission inquiry and a full set of reform recommendations issued can get Pennsylvania off the treadmill of big-promises-made-but-pennies-put-toward-change that has long handicapped the child protection system and endangered far too many kids.
David A. Atkinson is a Research Associate with the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.