The Sharon Herald: Sandusky case spurred major changes to beef up reporting of suspected abuse

HARRISBURG – In the decade since revelations about the predatory sexual abuse of children perpetrated by former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, lawmakers have passed more than two dozen bills intended to better protect children.

Some of that legislation dramatically changed the requirements for those who work with children and those who give their free time to help children.

Sandusky was arrested on Nov. 5, 2011, on 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period from 1994 to 2009.

“Sandusky elevated awareness. So in one way that’s a positive, but like so much in life, you know, something that is a gift is also a bit of a burden,” said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice, based in Reading. “And, you know, we have essentially overloaded the system in the last several years, we have more and more reports. And, and then there are just added complications on the system, staff turnover, the opiate crisis COVID-19. So we have both overloaded the system, at the same time, that the external pressures beyond the reports were already increasing,” she said.

More people became mandated reporters – meaning they are required to report suspicions about abuse or risk prosecution themselves – a change that eliminated a legal ambiguity over whether employees were required to report abuse directly to the state or whether employees could report concerns to their supervisors. This change was directly inspired by the Penn State controversy where there were lingering questions about the actions or inaction of legendary football Coach Joe Paterno and others at Penn State.

Sandusky was found guilty in June 2012 of 45 counts of child sexual abuse, convicted of molesting 10 boys over a 15-year period. He is serving a 30- to 60-year sentence at Laurel Highlands state prison.

Paterno was fired when the scandal came to light. Former Penn State Graham Spanier was convicted of child endangering for his role in failing to alert after Mike McQueary notified university officials that he’d seen Sandusky in a shower in a locker room. Former Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and former Penn State Vice President Gary Schultz pleaded guilty to similar charges.

Rod Erickson, who was named interim president after Spanier’s ouster, said university officials were left scrambling when the scandal exploded.

“This was dropped on us, literally at the 11th hour. I didn’t find out Curley and Shultz were going to be indicted until Friday afternoon. … Before that, we’re meeting with some of the trustees and the president’s council trying to figure out what’s going on. and so, we were ill-prepared. and there’s no way you could be prepared for something like that,” he said.

“We felt early on, the administration and the board, the faculty and the students, that it was important to show our genuine concern for the victims, and you could see that taking place in a number of ways, really in a rather organic fashion. You may recall that the students organized a candlelight vigil that first week, and came together at the football game to support the victims of child abuse,” he said.

Abuse hotlines on fire

The state also dramatically expanded the requirements for background checks to cover almost every adult who has the opportunity to be alone with children through a volunteer or professional position. and the state pushed for wide use of Children’s Advocacy Centers, places where specially-trained forensic interviewers are available to meet with children who have been abused with an aim toward reducing the number of times the victims are interviewed by investigators and ensuring that interviews are the most effective, said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice, based in Reading.

However even with the state’s move to expand those centers, there are still concerns that in too many cases, police and other well-intentioned investigators may be subjecting victims to questioning instead of directly referring the children to the CACs, she said.

The changes likely helped make crimes by predators like Sandusky less likely by increasing awareness and motivating people to report their suspicions, Palm said.

But they also greatly intensified the pressure on the child protection system as calls about potential abuse went through the roof.

In early 2015, there were so many calls being placed to the hotline that state officials estimated that 4 in 10 callers were on hold so long they gave up before they could get a caseworker on the line.

Part of the challenge at the time was that people who had suddenly been told they were required to report suspected abuse often didn’t get any training to help them recognize abuse so many of the calls were unnecessary, said Haven Evans, who was director of the state’s ChildLine hotline from 2013-2016. Any time there is a high profile child sex abuse scandal, it prompts a spike in tips because people become hyper aware of the issue, Evans said. But the changes in state law amplified that effect dramatically.

Staff on the ChildLine hotline worked “heroically” to manage the flood of calls, a situation made all the more difficult because initially all reports had to be passed along to county caseworkers through oral reports instead of by written communication.

Over the years, there’s been an increasing focus on helping mandated reporters understand the law and their obligations, said Evans who as director of programs for the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance now focuses on providing the training for people who are required to report suspected abuse.

Evans said that while the ChildLine hotline was inundated with calls, there’s no way of knowing whether or how many of those calls were appropriate. The hotline operators often have such little information they can’t gauge how credible the information is and even a tip that doesn’t seem significant can lead caseworkers to situations where children are actually in trouble, she said.

Legislation in the works

Almost a decade after Sandusky, the state continues to grapple with how to improve child protection with one of the most ambitious updates to the state’s child protection law since the post-Sandusky reforms beginning to move just last week.

On Wednesday, The Senate Aging and Youth committee by a 9-1 vote approved a measure that would change the timelines used for expunging records of abuse allegations. The measure also includes language to make cooking meth in front of a child qualify as child abuse. and the measure would also seek to streamline the process used to investigate child fatalities and near fatalities.

Palm’s group has criticized the legislation because proposed changes would limit the public’s access to information about specific cases, replacing public reporting about death investigations by lumping information into aggregated data without specific descriptions of specific deaths.

The information now available through the state’s abuse reports provide a “window into the scope of child abuse fatalities and near-fatalities and invite, albeit limited, sense of trends that need tackled,” according to an analysis of SB 871, completed by the Center for Children’s Justice. Eliminating the public reports without a more thorough discussion of the proposed change is “wrong-headed,” the group notes.

At an August hearing on the issue, Jonathan Rubin, Deputy Secretary for the Office of Children, Youth and Families in the Department of Human Services, said that the agency seeks to get the law changed to avoid releasing reports identifying child victims by name in a bid to support “the family who has suffered significant trauma.”

Current law already forbids disclosure of the child’s name in near-fatalities. Rubin assured that not identifying the child “does not impede the department’s ability to analyze the circumstances of the fatality or near fatality and develop improvement plans from the information.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the latest in a series of stories from CNHI exploring the impact of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal that hit Penn State 10 years ago this fall.

From The Sharon Herald, September 24, 2021

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