Shapiro should be commended for his focus on the often-forgotten child welfare system. As state representative, I have penned an urgent letter requesting his office conduct a further investigation to determine the current whereabouts of the 217 children whose cases were “screened out” and ensure they are not in harm’s way, being abused, and/or living in the deplorable conditions described.
At this point, it is unclear whether the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has followed up on these cases since 2017, when Luzerne County Children and Youth was put under a provisional license, or if the county is leading the charge in investigating these cases where children fell through the cracks once again. I am hopeful Shapiro will ensure that all these children are currently receiving the services they need and deserve, and provide the state Legislature with a full report on his office’s investigation. Also, those who reported these abuses should be contacted in order to restore the trust and accountability of our child abuse reporting system.
The hotline number to call to report possible cases of child abuse or neglect in Pennsylvania is 1-800-CHILDLINE. This is the “front door” to the child protection system, but for many years it has been considered to be understaffed and the staff has been considered to be under-trained in necessary screening capabilities on what qualifies as abuse. This broken “front door” needs to be fixed.
In 2017, then-Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale reported that the CHILDLINE system had many inadequacies and was failing children. Now we must look at fixing this system immediately by funding it correctly and making sure that it has the best technology available. For example, in Allegheny County, Children and Youth uses a specialized algorithm to screen out cases and it has proven to be helpful in preventing the screening out of hard-to-identify child abuse cases, such as infant bone breaks.
During the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic, child abuse reports fell 40%, largely due to the fact that children were not seeing their teachers or doctors, who are the top two reporters of child abuse. Between March 15, 2020, and Oct. 19, 2020, the unofficial number of non-COVID child deaths was 936, while child-COVID deaths were listed as a case count of “less than 4.” The current statewide preliminary numbers are showing that there is going to be a rise in child abuse deaths and near deaths, due to children being at home where many of them are much less safe. I have been ringing the alarm on this issue, and still the Department of Health will not release these numbers.
We need to take legislative action to make sure that if child abuse reporting is on the rise, we as a state have an equal and adequate response to combat the problem. I was the author of the child advocate legislation the governor enacted by executive order on July 31, 2019. The child advocate is supposed to bring another layer of child protection to child victims in Pennsylvania. However, during the pandemic our child advocate departed the office.
Children are now less safe, and we need to seek immediate remedies to the child welfare crisis Pennsylvania is experiencing. I have requested the state auditor general review all our counties and the areas where the current CHILDLINE system needs to be improved. There is a current budget surplus in the millions that can be allocated to solutions that will enhance the safety of children across Pennsylvania. Some of these include but are not limited to: strengthening CHILDLINE through training and updating technology, recruiting and retaining well-trained caseworkers, college loan forgiveness for caseworkers, and using the Family First Prevention Act’s federal monies to strengthen families who need housing and services. What better place to invest this surplus than in our own Pennsylvania children in need?
TARAH TOOHIL represents the 116th District in the state House of Representatives.