SUNBURY – Northumberland County Children and Youth Services is dealing with many challenges caused by 23 new laws that have gone into effect this year to improve child abuse prevention and detection.
“It’s been overwhelming and very time-consuming for our staff, especially the intake department,” Children and Youth Administrator Jenifer Willard-Miller said Friday. “In February, referrals for child protective services and general protective services increased from 99 to 151 (52 percent) compared to last February. Everyone in our office has been very busy since the new laws went into effect.
“This has been the most profound change to our system,” added Miller, who has worked for Children and Youth since 1992, and has served as administrator for three years.
Northumberland County District Attorney Ann Targonski, whose office also must adjust to the new laws, said the intent is to uncover more cases of child abuse that were previously not being reported or didn’t meet the previous definition of abuse.
“Although it will mean more work and time for our office and other agencies, the laws have been expanded with the hope of keeping our children safer,” she said.
More must report
Miller said there are six or seven different computer systems throughout the state’s 67 counties that feed into one statewide system known as CWIS (Child Welfare Information Solution).
In addition to numerous applications to state agencies by people working with children who are seeking required criminal history and child abuse clearances, Miller said more individuals are now legally required to report cases of suspected child abuse or neglect, and there is a need to train potential reporters about the new laws.
“The majority of our agency staff (approximately 75 workers), which includes myself, 37 caseworkers and multiple directors and supervisors, require these clearances, but now they are only good for 36 months,” Miller noted.
She also said teachers, coaches, police and other law enforcement personnel must comply with the stricter regulations.
Miller would like to have more staff to efficiently deal with the new regulations, but she realizes that’s not going to happen in the near future. She said she’s still waiting to have three vacant positions filled.
She said the number of child abuse cases has risen over the years in Northumberland County, which she attributed primarily to poverty and overall poor economic conditions.
In 2014, Miller said her agency handled 281 child protective services referrals that resulted in 25 indicated cases of abuse, including three for physical abuse, 21 for sexual abuse and one for physical neglect.
Last year, Targonski said her office received 167 child abuse referrals. She said 28 cases were prosecuted for physical abuse. Additional cases involving juvenile offenders and sexual abuse crimes also were prosecuted, but those statistics weren’t available.
Among the new laws is a separate statute for false reports involving child abuse that is a misdemeanor of the second degree that carries a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment and $5,000 fine.
Targonski said child abuse cases have increased over the years because more referrals are being made to Children and Youth Services and other agencies.
“People are more willing today to report child abuse,” the veteran prosecutor said. “In times past, such situations were handled within the families themselves, but in more recent years, people have come forward to protect the children because they recognize the seriousness and long-lasting effects on the victims.”
When a child abuse referral is made to a screener or intake worker at Children and Youth, that person collects all the information about the allegations before forwarding it to a supervisor. Depending on the nature of the referral, the response time on the call can range from immediate to 10 days.
Referrals can be made to the agency at the Human Services complex in Sunbury from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday by calling 570-988-4237. On-call staff is available during non-business hours at 1-855-313-4387. Referrals also can be made through the 24-hour, 7-day per week ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313.
Although the new laws mean a heavier workload for Miller and her staff, she’s hoping people will become more educated on reporting child abuse and take advantage of the help that is available to them.
For the first time, requests for clearances and child abuse referrals can be made electronically. To make referrals, mandatory reporters can use www.reportabusepa.pitt.edu. Miller encouraged mandatory reporters – individuals who through their employment or occupation come into contact with children and have reasonable cause to suspect abuse – to include as much information as possible when making referrals.
The new laws were recommended by the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Abuse Prevention following the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal in 2011. Sandusky, a former longtime assistant football coach at Penn State, was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison after being convicted of 45 counts of sex abuse in June 2012.
Among the major changes are the state’s definition of child abuse and who are considered mandatory reporters and alleged perpetrators of abuse.
Bodily abuse was previously defined as “severe pain” and “serious impairment.” But now, it’s legally defined as causing “substantial pain.” The lower threshold for abuse has brought more cases to Children and Youth, Miller said.
Anyone who comes into contact with a child or is directly responsible for their care and supervision is considered a mandatory reporter. Those who file a case of suspected child abuse in good faith are now protected by law from employment discrimination.
Previously, teachers and anyone employed in a school setting were not considered perpetrators of abuse. Any allegations had to go through an internal review at the school and then the case would be referred to law enforcement. Criminal charges would then lead to the involvement of Children and Youth.
But that whole protocol has been eliminated, Miller said.
As a mandatory reporter, any suspicions of abuse must be reported to the state within 48 hours. Failure to report suspected child abuse now carries harsher penalties. A first offense is a third-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison.
Child abuse can also be the result of a caretaker’s failure to act, and now includes things like preventing a sibling from injuring a child.
The definition was broadened to include “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” failing to prevent injury.
The definition of an alleged perpetrator also was expanded to include anyone responsible for the welfare of a child. Prior to the new regulations, some people who did not live with the child could be prosecuted for assault, but were not placed on the state’s child abuse registry.
All mandatory reporters are required to have three hours of state-approved training and continuing education on detecting child abuse and reporting procedures.
As of earlier this month, the state Department of Human Services (DHS) had received 57,000 requests for child abuse clearances since Dec. 31, of which 30,000 were done electronically. Hitches have been reported with individuals setting up user accounts to access the system, but improvements are expected as the year progresses.