HARRISBURG — Penn State researchers who scoured 2,000 child abuse reports across the state say the state should rethink a law that requires the destruction of some records of abuse allegations and re-examine what’s causing a state appeals bureau to overturn the vast majority of abuse rulings.
The research, published by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, was conducted by a team of researchers hired as part of the Child Maltreatment Network founded at Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
The researchers took particular aim at a state law that requires the state Department of Human Services to destroy records about abuse allegations that are determined to be “unfounded.”
A 2018 state law allowed counties to begin keeping records of such “unfounded” allegations, to help analyze the data to better recognize potential abuse. That law doesn’t require the counties to keep the records and it doesn’t allow counties to share that information with the state or other counties.
Efforts to change the law to keep those abuse allegation records have encountered resistance from lawmakers who worry about the privacy rights of people accused of abuse that weren’t substantiated by county investigators, said Sarah Anne Font, a Penn State sociology professor at Penn State, and one of the authors of the study.
It’s not the only shortcoming their work revealed.
When Children and Youth investigators determine that there is evidence that an individual has abused a child, the alleged abuser has the right to appeal the determination in order to avoid being listed on a state database of child abusers. In 2018, the appeals bureau ruled in favor of the alleged abusers and overturned the Children and Youth determination more than 70 percent of the time, the researchers noted.
The process doesn’t just result in a frustrating number of decisions being overturned, but the appeals can also lead to the unsettling situation where victims must not only be in the courtroom with their abuser, but face questions from them, said Brian Bornman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Children and Youth Administrators association.
“It’s a very child-unfriendly environment,” Bornman said.
Both issues have been well-documented by advocates for children but they’ve largely gone unnoticed by the public and unaddressed by lawmakers despite a raft of state child protection legislation that’s become law since the Sandusky scandal, said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice.
Palm said that before reaching their conclusions, the Penn State researchers took an unprecedented deep dive into the state data on child protection.
“We had a whole (statewide) Task Force on Child Protection and there was never this kind of dig into the data,” she said.
The move to relax the requirement on destroying abuse allegation records at the county level was tacked onto a 2018 bill that primarily focused on a requirement that schools display posters advertising the state’s child abuse reporting hotline.
Bornman said that the move to keep and use records in cases where abuse wasn’t substantiated is crucial as counties look to use more sophisticated data analysis to identify when abuse is occurring.
Current law doesn’t allow counties to share the information, so if a family moves to another county there’s very little reason to believe that the information about the old allegations will follow them if a report of alleged abuse arises in the new county, he said.
If the state were allowed to keep records, the information would be more readily available to investigators even if a family moves from one county to another, he said.
A state investigation into the 2016 death of 14-year-old Grace Packer of Bucks County, who was raped and killed by her mother’s boyfriend, identified the state’s record-destroying practices as a problem. That report found that county investigators may have missed signs that the girl was in danger because they didn’t know about older allegations.
State Sen. Thomas Killion, R-Chester County, has circulated a memo indicating that he plans to author legislation intended to correct some of the problems highlighted by Packer’s death. He has yet to unveil the bill, but the memo from last August indicates: “Expungement regulations and laws need to be updated to allow for tracking of patterns and review of all history when a new referral is received by county child welfare agencies. This information is critical in developing a family history of care and safety for a child.”
Font said that the state should be able to keep such records so that they can be used by child abuse investigators while also keeping the allegations confidential so that privacy rights are protected.
“The bottom line is that, we as a society do not have confidence in how our system protects children, as a result, we are nervous about keeping the information produced by the system,” Palm said.
The Department of Human Services supports the idea of updating state law to allow the agency to keep the abuse allegation records, said Erin James, a Human Services spokeswoman.
“Prior abuse reports, regardless of substantiation, are a strong indicator of risk of future abuse,” she said. “Counties should be aware of all prior incidents, including unfounded or invalid reports, when investigating a new report.”
In addition, the state is moving toward a single welfare data system for both counties and the state agency, so there will need to be uniform expungement rules, James said.
Keeping records of unfounded abuse allegations won’t lead to people being flagged when they seek a clearance to work or volunteer around children, she said.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announced a year ago that his office would conduct a review of the Human Services Bureau of Hearings and Appeals due to the “lopsided number” of determinations being overturned on appeal.
“I’m concerned that the efforts of hardworking caseworkers are being stymied by the bureaucracy that exists in Harrisburg,” he said.
Gary Miller, a spokesman for DePasquale, said that the auditor general’s report on the hearings bureau will likely be released this summer.
Font said that one of the issues that may need to be considered is whether the appeals judges have adequate training regarding what to expect out of testimony from children.
Bornman said that the children’s testimony is complicated by the fact that in many cases, people accused of abuse, represent themselves in their appeals. That means that the accused can directly question the child who they allegedly victimized, he said.
In addition, if the abuser is a member of the same household as the victim, in many cases, the parents may not believe the child or try to sway the child into changing their stories, Font said. That also may make it appear that child’s testimony is less convincing when they are summoned to appear in the hearing, she said.
Frustration among child protection workers over their lack of success before the appeals bureau may be leading some counties to stop even trying to get abuse determinations in some cases in order to avoid having to put the victim through the trauma of testifying, both Bornman and Palm said.
Legislation to make the appeals process less traumatic to child victims was introduced in the state Senate last month by state Sen. Timothy Kearney, D-Chester County.
Kearney said that he was inspired to author the bill by a recent case in his district in which a 7-year-old boy indicated he’d been molested by his father.
“The father immediately appealed the decision and, acting as his own attorney, was allowed to cross-examine his abused son,” Kearney said, calling it a “glaring example” of the need to reform the appeals process.
Kearney’s Senate Bill 980 would allow victims to testify by video rather than directly face their alleged abusers. The legislation is now in the Senate Health and Human Services committee.