Task force on sex abuse to recommend better access to advocacy centers

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After 10 months of deliberations, a task force formed in response to the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal will recommend that all children in Pennsylvania have better access to centers that specialize in investigating child abuse.

The Task Force on Child Protection will recommend that a children’s advocacy center be located within a two-hour drive of every child in the state, said David Heckler, the Bucks County District Attorney and chairman of the task force. The report will be released Tuesday.

“If there had been a children’s advocacy center in Centre County in 1998 to 2000,” Heckler said, “I’m telling you they would have heard about Jerry Sandusky then, and a decade of suffering by his victims would have been prevented.”

There are currently 21 Children’s Advocacy Centers in the state. However, they receive no state money.

Heckler said the task force will  recommend sweeping changes, including new crimes, revised criminal codes and new policies. However, he declined to detail them.

Sandusky was arrested a year ago on charges that he sexually molested eight boys from 1994 to 2009. He often took boys he met through his Second Mile charity to Pennsylvania State University facilities. He was convicted and sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison. 

The Sandusky scandal called into question the effectiveness of Pennsylvania’s child-abuse laws. For at least 15 years, Sandusky eluded detection and prosecution. As a former assistant football coach at Penn State, he was admired as a sports celebrity. As founder of the Second Mile charity for troubled kids, he was revered as a humanitarian.

When questions were raised about Sandusky’s conduct, Penn State leaders allegedly engaged in what state Attorney General Linda Kelly has called a “conspiracy of silence.” Three former administrators — President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz — have been charged with perjury, obstruction of justice and other charges.

Their lawyers have said they are innocent. A preliminary hearing for the three is scheduled for Dec. 14.

Protocols for teams needed

Pennsylvania appears to under-report child abuse, according to a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The state substantiates abuse in 1.3 cases per 1,000 children screened for investigations -- the lowest rate in the nation -- compared with a national average of 9.2.

The Task Force on Child Protection was created by the General Assembly in January to review the state’s child protection laws and procedures. Lawmakers, for the most part, have withheld proposing legislation while the task force met and deliberated.

One major concern was how child abuse is investigated. For example, police, social workers and prosecutors are supposed to form multidisciplinary teams in every county to coordinate investigations. Multidisciplinary teams are less likely to drop cases or ignore follow-ups, Heckler said. 

“It’s the accountability of having people from several disciplines looking across a table and saying, ‘this is your job.’”

Pennsylvania law requires multidisciplinary teams, but teams in some counties do not meet  regularly or have not developed protocols. Heckler said the task force will recommend “putting teeth into the law.”

While multidisciplinary teams are the foundation of effective child-abuse investigations, children’s advocacy centers are an extra layer of protection.

They are places, often hospitals, designed to help children feel safe. They employ doctors, nurses and mental health practitioners who examine and treat children. The child is interviewed once, by a forensic examiner skilled at eliciting crucial information.

“Children’s advocacy centers ensure justice,” Heckler said.

Pennsylvania authorities received 24,378 reports of child abuse last year, according to the state Department of Public Welfare annual report. The state’s  21 advocacy centers report that they served 7,991 children.

About half of the state’s 67 counties either do not have an advocacy center or have no arrangements with one in a nearby county. More are needed, said Abbie Newman, president of the state association of Children’s Advocacy Centers and Multidisciplinary Teams.

“Children need to be brought to a place where they can be comfortable, as opposed to a police station,” she said.

Money could be a hurdle

Heckler said it would be too expensive to put an advocacy center in every county.

Money could be an obstacle. The centers are expensive to run and Pennsylvania provides no funding.

Philadelphia Children’s Alliance has a $1.5 million budget, for example, for treating about 1,200 children a year. The Child Advocacy Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh has a $500,000 annual budget that does not include the hospital's medical staff. The Bucks County Children’s Advocacy Center operates on a $215,000 budget. The centers are supported by individual donors, foundations, corporations and federal grants.

“It always comes back to money,” said Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, D-Berks, who co-sponsored the resolution that created the task force. “That could be a stumbling block.”

State House representatives have proposed raising money by increasing fees for court proceedings, property records, or for  background checks on  people who work with children.

No task force recommendation will be enacted this year. This legislative session ends this month and lawmakers won’t reconvene until mid-January.

The House Judiciary Committee would be responsible for drafting legislation that changes the the criminal code. Committee chairman, Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin County, estimated that turning recommendations into law could take two to three months, “if there is support for the laws.”

The Senate Committee on Aging and Youth already has prepared a packet of proposed bills. Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, held hearings on child abuse last year before Sandusky was arrested. She said new laws could be approved in two or three months.

“As soon as we get the report and make sure nothing is in conflict,” she said, “I think we will move quickly.”

“I tried to go through these laws as if I were a kid who had been abused,” said Heckler, the Bucks County District attorney, who is a former judge and state senator.

“I asked, how does each provision protect the child or cut the child off from protection. Hopefully, we’ve come up with recommendations that will help kids.”

Reach Bill Heltzel at 412-315-0265 or bheltzel@publicsource.org.