Pa. police forces swamped with child abuse cases amid stricter reporting standards

Western Pennsylvania police departments are swamped with child abuse referrals but have no extra staff to investigate them, a result of changes to state laws prompted by the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

Police in Allegheny County investigated three times the number of child abuse referrals in the first six months of 2015 as they did during the same period last year. The number of detectives working the cases remained the same.

“We prioritize what we feel should be looked at first,” county police Superintendent Charles Moffatt said.

He said his detectives have felt the increase in caseload but, “You have to do what you have to do.”

In the first six months of 2014, the county’s Children, Youth and Families referred 559 cases to police. Of those, 304 cases were assigned to county detectives, and 119 were assigned to Pittsburgh police. In the first half of this year, CYF referrals jumped to 1,448 — 933 to county detectives and 387 to city police.

Cathy Palm, executive director of the Center for Children’s Justice based in Berks County, said the increase likely stems from expanded definitions and mandatory reporting requirements in laws that took effect Jan. 1.

“One of the challenges in Pennsylvania right now is that we know the numbers are up, we know the reports are up, but we don’t know what’s happening after the reports,” Palm said. “Is law enforcement really able to respond to the number of reports coming in, in terms of things like overtime and staff?”

Two dozen laws were born out of a task force formed in response to the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse revelations in 2011. The former Penn State assistant football coach was convicted in 2012 of molesting young boys over 15 years.

The saga resulted in an overhaul of the child abuse reporting laws, particularly what constitutes abuse and who must report the abuse to whom.

Previously, mandated reporters were to inform a superior and that person would go to police. Now, mandated reporters call in suspected abuse to a state hotline, ChildLine.

In Allegheny County, cases assigned to Pittsburgh and county detectives account for 91 percent of child abuse cases. The remaining 9 percent were assigned to municipal police departments.

The county stands out, but it is not alone.

In Westmoreland County, Children’s Bureau referrals between January and June jumped from 3,067 in 2014 to 3,587 in 2015 — a 17 percent increase. The number of cases assigned to police jumped from 1,347 to 1,657 — a 23 percent increase.

CYF in Armstrong County reported a 40 percent increase in referrals, up to 745 in fiscal year 2014-15 from 534 the year before. It was necessary to reassign caseworkers to intake, according to CYF director Dennis Demangone.

Data from other Western Pennsylvania counties, and the state, were not available, though a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services confirmed an increase in referrals statewide.

The changes to the laws updated the definition of physical abuse from “serious injury” to “bodily injury.” A previous threshold for pain — “severe” — was changed to “substantial.”

Kicking, burning and biting are considered abuse regardless of injury. Exposing a child to harmful medical treatment can qualify.

Neglect was redefined to include a one-time event of a particularly serious nature.

Changes included expanding the number of individuals who are mandatory reporters — professionals who by law must report suspected abuse.

Palm said that with the emphasis on reporting, the same emphasis must be put on investigating.

“You don’t want to make the mistake of saying, ‘We won’t investigate this one,’ and that’s the one you really should be investigating,” she said. “If you’re going to increase at the front end, you really need to make sure you have enough people to respond to those reports.”

Pennsylvania State Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm said beyond the overload of cases, the increase can take an emotional toll.

“People are human,” Storm said. “It isn’t happening to you, but vicariously, you do start to absorb some of it. It can really color the way you see the world.

“These are some of the worst cases: You’re talking about kids who have been harmed,” Storm said. “As much as, as a police officer, you don’t want to take your work home with you, these are the kinds of cases that stay with you.”

Palm said the numbers could spike again in coming weeks, when school resumes.

“We generally see a drop-off in the summer months because there are not as many eyes on the kids,” she said. “Counties … might already be struggling with the demand in the first six months, and they’ll likely see another uptick in demand on the system.”