Trinity Mount Ministries

Showing posts with label Pennsylvania. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pennsylvania. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

700 Images Of Child Pornography Lands Chesco Man Behind Bars

Cristian Brown was convicted by a jury of seven counts of possessing child pornography.

WEST CHESTER, PA —A 21-year-old West Chester man was sentenced Tuesday in the Chester County Justice Center to seven to 15 years in state prison after being convicted of possessing child pornography.

Cristian Brown was also ordered by Judge Patrick Carmody to serve 11 years of probation following the prison term.

“By using the dark web to further his predatory behavior of children the defendant was able to obtain and possess hundreds of the most horrific images of child pornography,” District Attorney Deb Ryan said after the sentence was handed down.

“Each one of these images is a real victim who will suffer these indignities and violations indefinitely.”

According to Chester County detectives, a total of 700 images of child pornography were on one of the computers used by the defendant.

The library of images recovered depicted child victims between the ages of 2 and 14 years old who were sexually assaulted.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Mandatory reporting was supposed to stop severe child abuse. It punishes poor families instead.

After the Penn State scandal, Pennsylvania required more professionals to report suspected child abuse. A flood of unfounded allegations followed, ensnaring thousands of low-income parents.

More than a decade before the Penn State University child sex abuse scandal broke, an assistant football coach told his supervisors that he had seen Jerry Sandusky molesting a young boy in the shower. When this was revealed during Sandusky’s criminal trial in 2012, it prompted public outcry: Why hadn’t anyone reported the abuse sooner?

Mandatory reporting was supposed to stop severe child abuse. It punishes poor families instead.

After the Penn State scandal, Pennsylvania required more professionals to report suspected child abuse. A flood of unfounded allegations followed, ensnaring thousands of low-income parents.

April Lee believes a call from a mandatory reporter triggered an investigation that resulted in her kids being taken away. “You get to the point where it’s almost normalized that you’re going to have that knock on your door,” she said.

Stephanie Mei-Ling for NBC News and ProPublica

By Mike Hixenbaugh, Suzy Khimm and Agnel Philip, ProPublica

This article was published in partnership with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive ProPublica’s biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

PHILADELPHIA — More than a decade before the Penn State University child sex abuse scandal broke, an assistant football coach told his supervisors that he had seen Jerry Sandusky molesting a young boy in the shower. When this was revealed during Sandusky’s criminal trial in 2012, it prompted public outcry: Why hadn’t anyone reported the abuse sooner?

In response, Pennsylvania lawmakers enacted sweeping reforms to prevent anything like it from ever happening again.

Most notably, they expanded the list of professionals required to report it when they suspect a child might be in danger, broadened the definition for what constitutes abuse and increased the criminal penalties for those who fail to report.

“Today, Pennsylvania says ‘No more’ to child abuse,” then-Gov. Tom Corbett declared as he signed the legislation into law in 2014.

A flood of unfounded reports followed, overwhelming state and local child protection agencies. The vast expansion of the child protection dragnet ensnared tens of thousands of innocent parents, disproportionately affecting families of color living in poverty. While the unintended and costly consequences are clear, there’s no proof that the reforms have prevented the most serious abuse cases, an NBC News and ProPublica investigation found. 

Instead, data and child welfare experts suggest the changes may have done the opposite.

The number of Pennsylvania children found to have been abused so severely that they died or were nearly killed has gone up almost every year since — from 96 in 2014 to 194 in 2021, according to state data. State child welfare officials say more vigilance in documenting severe cases of abuse likely contributed to the increase. But child safety advocates and researchers raised concerns that the surge of unfounded reports has overburdened the system, making it harder to identify and protect children who are truly in danger.

In the five years after the reforms took effect, the state’s child abuse hotline was inundated with more than 1 million reports of child maltreatment, state data shows. More than 800,000 of these calls were related not to abuse or serious neglect, but to lower-level neglect allegations often stemming from poverty, most of which were later dismissed as invalid by caseworkers.

The number of children reported as possible victims of abuse or serious neglect increased by 72% compared to the five years prior, triggering Child Protective Services investigations into the well-being of nearly 200,000 children from 2015 to 2019, according to a ProPublica and NBC News analysis of federal Department of Health and Human Services data. From this pool of reports, child welfare workers identified 6,000 more children who might have been harmed than in the five previous years. But for the vast majority of the 200,000 alleged victims — roughly 9 in 10 — county agencies dismissed the allegations as unfounded after inspecting families’ homes and subjecting parents and children to questioning.

The expanded reporting requirements were even less effective at detecting additional cases of sexual abuse. Some 42,000 children were investigated as possible sex abuse victims from 2015 to 2019 — an increase of 42% from the five years prior — but there was no increase in the number of substantiated allegations, the analysis of federal data showed. In other words, reforms enacted in response to a major sex abuse scandal led to thousands more investigations, but no increase in the number of children identified as likely victims.

Child welfare experts say these findings cast doubt on the effectiveness of the primary tool that states rely on to protect children: mandatory child abuse reporting. These policies, the bedrock of America’s child welfare system, were first implemented more than half a century ago in response to growing national awareness of child maltreatment. The thinking was simple: By making it a crime for certain professionals to withhold information about suspected abuse, the government could prevent vulnerable children from falling through the cracks.

Over the past decade, at least 36 states have enacted laws to expand the list of professionals required by law to report suspicions of child abuse or imposed new reporting requirements and penalties for failing to report, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, a group representing state governments.

Some legal experts and child welfare reform activists argue these laws have created a vast family surveillance apparatus, turning educators, health care workers, therapists and social services providers into the eyes and ears of a system that has the power to take children from their parents.

“I don’t think we have evidence that mandated reporting makes children safer,” said Kathleen Creamer, an attorney with Community Legal Services, a Philadelphia nonprofit that provides free representation to parents accused of abuse and neglect. “I actually think we have strong evidence that it puts child safety at risk because it makes parents afraid to seek help, and because it floods hotlines with frivolous calls, making it harder for caseworkers to identify families who really do need services.”

In a yearlong investigation, ProPublica and NBC News are examining the extraordinary reach of America’s child welfare system and its disproportionate impact on the lives of low-income families of color. The stream of reports generated by mandatory reporting is so vast, and so unevenly applied, public health and social work researchers estimate that more than half of all Black children nationally will have been the subject of a child protective services investigation by the time they turn 18 — nearly double the rate of white children.

After a hotline report comes in, it’s the job of child welfare investigators to determine whether a child is truly in danger. These caseworkers aren’t held to the same legal or training standards as law enforcement, but they can wield significant power, ProPublica and NBC News found, sometimes pressuring their way into homes without court orders to comb through closets and pantries, looking for signs of what’s lacking.

Under this system, child welfare agencies investigate the families of 3.5 million children each year and take about 250,000 kids into protective custody, according to federal data. Fewer than 1 in 5 of these family separations are related to allegations of physical or sexual abuse, the original impetus behind mandatory reporting. Instead, the vast majority of removals are based on reports of child neglect, a broad range of allegations often tied to inadequate housing or a parent’s drug addiction.

In response, a growing movement of family lawyers, researchers and child welfare reform advocates have called for a radical change in the approach to child protection in America, starting with the abolition of mandatory reporting. This idea has grown in popularity among both progressive activists and activists conservatives who oppose what they call excessive government intrusion in the lives of families. Other critics support less dramatic reforms, such as limiting which professionals are required to report and providing better training for mandated reporters.

New laws led to a surge in the number of parents brought before Philadelphia Family Court judges on allegations of child neglect.

Stephanie Mei-Ling for NBC News and ProPublica

The fallout from Pennsylvania’s expansion of mandatory reporting has become something of a cautionary tale among those calling for a system overhaul. Even some proponents of the changes have begun to question their impact.

State Rep. Todd Stephens, a Republican who helped spearhead the post-Sandusky reforms, said the impact of the changes warranted closer examination. In response to NBC News and ProPublica’s findings, he said he would lead a legislative effort to take a “deep dive in the data” to ensure the laws are protecting children as intended.

But Stephens said he believes the legislation is working, citing the massive increase in hotline reports and the 6,000 additional children with substantiated findings of abuse or serious neglect over five years.

“The goal was, if people thought children were in trouble or in danger, we wanted the cavalry to come running,” Stephens said. “That’s 6,000 kids who are getting help who might not have otherwise.”

Child welfare experts, however, cautioned against drawing conclusions based on the increase in substantiated abuse cases because those are subjective determinations made by caseworkers that children were more likely than not to be at risk of being abused and do not indicate whether the findings were ultimately dismissed by a judge.

Dr. Rachel Berger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh who served on a task force that paved the way for the 2014 reforms, said the state has not produced evidence to show the changes have made children safer.

In 2020, while testifying before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Berger warned lawmakers that the reforms “may have inadvertently made children less safe” by straining the system and siphoning resources away from genuine cases of abuse.

“We are continuing to tell mandated reporters, ‘Report, report, report,’ and nobody can handle it,” Berger said in an interview.

Jon Rubin, deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services’ Office of Children, Youth and Families, which oversees the state’s ChildLine call center, said it’s “really hard to evaluate” whether the 2014 reforms succeeded in making children safer overall. Rubin said he’s aware of the concern that the changes overwhelmed the system and may have contributed to the increase in child abuse deaths. But he cautioned against drawing conclusions without considering other factors, such as the strain on the system caused by the fentanyl epidemic beginning in 2017.

Rubin said his agency is studying ways to reduce the number of hotline reports related to poverty and housing issues, in part by encouraging mandatory reporters to instead connect families directly with resources. The state has also made it a priority to keep struggling families together by providing access to services such as mental health counseling and parental support groups, Rubin said. He worries about the potential impact of more dramatic changes.

“How many children’s lives are we willing to risk to, as you said, abolish the system, to reduce the overreporting risk?” Rubin said. Would preventing unnecessary reports, he asked, be worth “one more child hurt or killed, five more children hurt or killed, 100 more children hurt or killed?”

But Richard Wexler, the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a Virginia-based advocacy group, said that this logic ignores the harm that comes with unnecessary government intrusion in the lives of innocent families. Simply having an investigation opened can be traumatic, experts say, and numerous studies show that separating young children from their parents leads to increased risk of depression, developmental delays, attachment issues and post-traumatic stress disorder.

It isn’t necessary to threaten educators, social workers, doctors and other professionals with criminal charges in order to protect children, Wexler argued.

“Abolishing mandatory reporting does not mean abolishing reporting,” he said. “Anybody can still call ChildLine. What it does, however, is put the decision back in the hands of professionals to exercise their judgment concerning when to pick up the phone.”

The cost of seeking help

April Lee, a Black mother of three in Philadelphia, said she has seen and experienced firsthand the way mandatory reporting and the prospect of child removals create a culture of fear in low-income communities.

In Philadelphia, the state’s most populous city, Black children were the focus of about 66% of reports to the city’s Department of Human Services, its child welfare agency, even though they make up about 42% of the child population, according to a 2020 report commissioned by the department.

Lee on her porch in Philadelphia. Numerous studies show separating young children from their parents leads to increased risk of depression, attachment issues and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Stephanie Mei-Ling for NBC News and ProPublica

Over time, Lee said, moms in neighborhoods like hers get used to having child welfare agents show up on their steps.

“It’s a shame,” she said. “You get to the point where it’s almost normalized that you’re going to have that knock on your door.”

Lee estimates that she’s personally had about 20 such reports filed against her in the two decades since she gave birth to her first child at the age of 15. In most instances, she said, the caseworkers didn’t leave her with paperwork, but she said the accusations ranged from inadequate housing to concerns over her son’s scraped knee after a tumble on the front porch.

The agency never discloses who files the reports, but Lee believes it was a call from a mandatory reporter that triggered the investigation that resulted in her children being taken away. In 2013, a year after the birth of her third child, Lee said, she was drugged at a bar and raped. In her struggle to cope with the trauma, she said, she confided in a doctor.

“I was honest,” Lee said. “Like ‘I’m f---ing struggling. I’m struggling emotionally.’” 

She suspects someone at the clinic where she sought mental health care made the hotline call, most likely, she said, believing that the city’s child welfare agency would be able to help.

The agency opened an investigation and determined that Lee — who at one point had left her three children with a friend for several days — was not adequately caring for her children. The agency took them into protective custody, according to court records reviewed by NBC News and ProPublica. Afterward, Lee said, she spiraled into drug addiction and homelessness.

At her lowest point, Lee slept on a piece of cardboard in the Kensington neighborhood, the epicenter of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis. It took two years to get clean, she said, and another three before she regained custody of all of her children.

Lee said people like to tell her she’s proof that the system works, but she disagrees. 

“My children still have deficits to this day due to that separation,” she said. “I still have deficits to this day due to that separation. I still hold my breath at certain door knocks. That separation anxiety is still alive and well in my family.”

Family photographs hang on the wall at Lee’s home.Stephanie Mei-Ling for NBC News and ProPublicaLee holds a journal she wrote in during the time she was separated from her kids.Stephanie Mei-Ling for NBC News and ProPublica

Now Lee works as a client liaison at Community Legal Services, guiding parents through the system. The job is funded by a grant from the city agency that took her children. Virtually all of the mothers she works with have one thing in common, she said: They’re struggling to make ends meet.

“We see that in a lot of our cases,” Lee said. “You have someone that went to their doctor to say, ‘Hey, I relapsed.’ That’s a call to the ChildLine. Or you have a family that might go into a resource center saying, ‘Hey, we’re homeless.’ That’s a call to the ChildLine. You have children that show up to school without proper clothing. That’s a call to the ChildLine.”

But mandatory reporting, and the fear that it provokes, makes it harder for them to get the help they need.

“The solution to poverty,” Lee said, “should not be the removal of your children.”

Policies driven by outrage

In 1962, a pediatrician named C. Henry Kempe published a seminal paper identifying a new medical condition that he called “the battered-child syndrome.” Drawing on a survey of hospital reports nationwide and a review of medical records, Kempe warned that physical abuse had become a “significant cause of childhood disability and death” in America and that this violence often went unreported.

The paper led to widespread media attention and calls to address what some experts began calling the nation’s hidden child abuse epidemic. In the rush to take action, one solution emerged above all else: mandatory reporting.

Within four years of Kempe’s paper, every state had passed some form of mandatory child abuse reporting. In 1974, despite a lack of research into the effects of these new policies, the approach was codified into federal law when Congress enacted the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which requires states to have mandatory reporting provisions in order to receive federal grants for preventing child abuse.

It became conventional wisdom among child welfare policymakers that more reporting and investigations would make children safer. States gradually expanded reporting requirements in the decades that followed, adding ever more professionals — including animal control officers, computer technicians and dentists — to the list. They also expanded the definition of child maltreatment to include emotional abuse and neglect.

But critics say these policy decisions too often have been guided by public outrage and politics, not by data and research.

“Reporting has been our one response to concerns about child abuse,” said Dr. Mical Raz, a physician and professor of history at the University of Rochester who has studied the impact of mandatory child abuse reporting. “Now we have quite a bit of data that shows that more reporting doesn’t result in better identification of children at risk and is not associated with better outcomes for children, and in some cases may cause harm to families and communities.”

The Sandusky scandal, Raz said, demonstrates how a high-profile atrocity and public outcry can drive policy decisions.

The longtime Penn State assistant football coach was convicted in 2012 on 45 counts of child sexual abuse tied to the repeated rape and molestation of boys over a 15-year period. An investigation commissioned by the Penn State Board of Trustees found that several university officials, including legendary Nittany Lions football coach Joe Paterno, had known about allegations of sex abuse against Sandusky as early as 1998, but had shown a “total and consistent disregard” for “the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.”

In response, Pennsylvania passed a raft of reforms. It clarified and expanded the definition of abuse and added tens of thousands of additional people to the state’s roster of mandated reporters — which now includes virtually any adult who works or volunteers with children. It also increased the criminal consequences for failing to report child abuse, with penalties ranging from a misdemeanor to a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Although such prosecutions are rare, child welfare officials said the threat is effective in driving more professionals to report.

But the state failed to include additional funding to handle the anticipated increase in hotline calls and investigations, despite warnings from county officials that the reforms “were going to put a massive strain on their workers and would require additional resources,” according to a 2017 report from the state auditor general.

Those warnings proved prescient. In early 2015, after the changes went into effect and thousands of additional reports flooded Pennsylvania’s child abuse hotline, state officials estimated 4 in 10 callers were placed on hold for so long that they hung up before getting a caseworker on the line.

A playground in Philadelphia, where nearly a quarter of residents live in poverty. The deluge of new reports stemming from the state’s child welfare reform disproportionately involved Black families in the city and led to a sharp increase in the number of children being taken from their parents.

Stephanie Mei-Ling for NBC News and ProPublica

Some ChildLine workers reported an uptick in calls from mandated reporters who openly acknowledged they did not really believe that a child was in danger. Haven Evans, now the director of programs at Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, which trains mandatory reporters across the state, was working at the state’s hotline center that year.

“There were a lot of mandatory reporters who would even admit on the phone call that they were making this report because they were concerned with the changes in the law and the penalties being increased,” Evans said. “They just wanted to, for lack of a better word, cover their butt.”

In the months and years that followed, the state added funding and workers and upgraded call center technology to keep up with the deluge. But taking a report is just the first step of the process — what some refer to as the child welfare system’s “front door” — and not enough attention has been paid to studying whether the system as a whole leads to better outcomes, said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice, a nonprofit in Bernville, Pennsylvania, that advocates for government interventions to protect children.

In 2018, Palm came out against proposed legislation to further expand mandatory reporting that had been introduced in the wake of the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal and grand jury investigation. Even though Palm is herself a survivor of child sexual abuse, her calls for a formal study before passing more reforms made her a target of attacks, she said.

“I literally got called by a senior official at the attorney general’s office, who called me screaming at me, equating me to a friend of the pedophile,” Palm said. “I was floored. Do you have any sense of who you’re talking to?”

The following year, state lawmakers acted anyway, passing a law that expanded when failure to report is a felony.

The same dynamic has played out across the country: High-profile media coverage of child abuse deaths and child sexual abuse have created overwhelming political pressure to ramp up mandatory reporting, in red and blue states alike.

Eighteen states have gone so far as to implement universal child abuse reporting requirements, deputizing every adult in the state as a mandatory reporter. But a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that universal reporting requirements led to more unfounded reports while failing to detect additional confirmed cases of child maltreatment.

Kelley Fong, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, has done extensive research into the impacts of mandatory reporting policies. When Fong interviewed dozens of impoverished mothers in Rhode Island and later Connecticut, they described how mandated reporters are “omnipresent” and how the fear of a call to Child Protective Services leads some to avoid seeking public assistance.

But when she spoke to professionals who had filed reports against parents, Fong found a disconnect.

“Almost to a person, every single mandated reporter said, ‘I reported because I wanted to help the family,’” Fong said. “For the most part, these mandated reporters are in their jobs because they want to help people, they want to improve conditions for children and families. And so here is this agency that offers them this possibility of getting help to parents and children.”

Fong compared this approach to sending armed police officers to assist people struggling with homelessness, mental illness and addiction — a practice that’s drawn increased scrutiny since 2020’s nationwide demonstrations for racial justice and police reform. But while there’s growing awareness of the consequences of what activists view as the overpolicing of Black communities, Fong said fewer people have applied that same critical lens to child welfare.

That’s starting to change.

In 2019, in response to concerns that Massachusetts wasn’t doing enough to protect children, the state legislature voted to create a special commission to study how best to expand mandatory reporting requirements. For two years, the commission was progressing toward that goal — until they agreed to hear public comments on their plans. 

During four hours of virtual testimony in April 2021, the commission heard from dozens of parents, social workers, legal experts and reform activists, most of whom expressed deep concerns about the potential harms of expanded reporting requirements. Raz was among those who testified, citing as a warning the dysfunction that followed the Pennsylvania reforms.

Afterward, members of the commission said they were “shocked” and “taken aback” to learn about potential problems associated with expanding the child welfare system. As a result, when the commission delivered its final report to lawmakers in June 2021, it made no formal policy recommendations.

Instead, it called for further study of the unintended impacts of mandatory reporting.

The strain on Philadelphia’s system

Few places were harder hit by Pennsylvania’s surge of new child abuse reports after 2015 than Philadelphia.

Kimberly Ali, commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, the city’s child welfare agency, acknowledged in an interview with NBC News that the change in the state’s mandatory reporting policies put a strain on Philadelphia’s system. She said the local hotline managed by her department “imploded” after the Sandusky reforms. It took the agency years to recover.

“That was a difficult time at the Department of Human Services, just trying to manage the number of calls and the number of investigations,” Ali said.

In a city where nearly a quarter of residents live in poverty, the deluge of new reports disproportionately involved Black families and led to a sharp increase in the number of Philadelphia children being taken from their parents. In 2017, the city’s child welfare agency removed the most children per capita among the 10 largest cities in the U.S. — at three times the rate of New York and four times that of Chicago, according to data compiled by the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

Five of those children belonged to Lisa Mothee.

On Aug. 21, 2017, a mandatory reporter employed by the Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia called in a hotline report flagging that Mothee’s newborn baby had tested positive for opioids. The hospital later reported that Mothee had also failed to provide her baby with proper medical care, because she declined vaccinations and other medical screenings typically provided to newborns, according to court records.

At a court hearing a month later, Mothee, who is Black, told a judge that she had taken a Percocet to cope with pain late in her pregnancy. She explained that she’d stopped consenting to vaccines after one of her children had an adverse reaction several years earlier, which she believed was her right as a parent. After a lawyer for the city’s child welfare agency acknowledged in court that they didn’t have reason to believe Mothee’s children were in danger, she figured the case would be dismissed.

Instead, the judge ordered Mothee and the father of four of her children to be handcuffed and held in court for several hours while child protection agents picked up all five of her kids from school and a babysitter.

“What? No!” Mothee called out, according to a court transcript. “You can’t take my kids! You can’t take my kids!”

Eight months would pass before a different judge ordered her children to be returned. Years later, Mothee said she’s still struggling with the trauma of the ordeal. “It’s like a death,” she said. “You never get over that feeling.”

Mothee’s case was part of a statewide trend post-Sandusky.

The number of Pennsylvania children reported as possible victims of serious medical neglect — a blanket term describing a parent’s failure to provide adequate medical care — nearly quadrupled after the reforms went into effect in 2015, triggering Child Protective Services investigations into the well-being of about 9,600 children over a five-year span, according to the ProPublica and NBC News analysis of federal data. 

This surge followed a change in how the state defined when neglect, including medical neglect, can be considered a form of child abuse. Lawmakers lowered the threshold from any failure to care for a child that endangers their “life or development,” to any failure that “threatens a child’s well-being.” Critics say the change has usurped parents’ right to make medical decisions for their children and has punished people who lack easy and affordable access to health care.

Mothee’s case was among several cited in a scathing report issued in April by a special committee of the Philadelphia City Council that detailed the unintended consequences of mandatory child abuse reporting and alleged failures at Philadelphia’s child welfare agency. 

City Councilmember David Oh pushed for the creation of the special committee after his own brush with a mandatory reporter in 2018. A hospital worker at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia had phoned in a hotline report after Oh, a Republican and the city’s first Asian-American councilmember, brought his son to the emergency room with a broken collarbone. Oh explained that his boy had been injured while practicing martial arts, but the hospital social worker said she had no choice but to notify the city, triggering what Oh viewed as a senseless investigation into a report that was ultimately deemed unfounded.

City Councilmember David Oh at Philadelphia City Hall. Oh pushed to create a special committee that has called for the state to abolish mandatory reporting.

Stephanie Mei-Ling for NBC News and ProPublica

Afterward, Oh said, he heard from dozens of Philadelphia parents, including Mothee, who’d gone through similar ordeals. 

Ali, the DHS commissioner, said her agency has reduced the city’s foster care rolls by about 29% since 2017, with an increased focus on providing families with services rather than removing children. But Oh said not enough has been done to mitigate the fear created by mandatory reporting, especially in poorer Black communities.

“In those neighborhoods, everyone knows about mandated reporters,” Oh said during an interview at his office. “So when your child falls off a bike, you’ve got to think, ‘Do we take him to the hospital or not?’”

Oh’s committee made several recommendations for reforms — including a call for the state to abolish mandatory reporting.

“They have a system where everyone pulls a fire alarm anytime they feel like there’s a potential for fire, and theoretically it’s great because we’re going to catch every fire before it begins,” Oh said. “But how it’s worked out is all our firefighters are running around to false alarms, and now buildings are burning and people are dying. It’s a bad system.”

'Mandatory reporters into mandatory supporters'

Some experts argue that the best way to reduce unfounded reports of child abuse and neglect is not by abolishing mandatory reporting, but by doing a better job of training professionals on when to report — and when it’s better to provide help to a family in need instead.

In Pennsylvania, medical professionals are required to complete a two-hour mandatory reporter training course every two years; other professionals must take a three-hour training every five years.

But Dr. Benjamin Levi, a pediatrician and former director of the Center for the Protection of Children, a research and policy group at Penn State Children’s Hospital, said such training programs typically lack a clear explanation of the “reasonable suspicion” of abuse that should trigger a report.

“‘Reasonable suspicion’ is a feeling — they don’t even define it,” said Levi, who developed an alternative training for mandatory reporters to help fill in the gaps.

“If you increase mandated reporting, and you don’t make sure that mandated reporters know what to report and what not to report, you’ve just made the problem worse.”

Educators, the largest source of child abuse reports nationally, in particular have struggled to correctly identify children in need of help. From 2015 to 2019 in Pennsylvania, 24 out of 25 children referred to Child Protective Services by education professionals had their cases dismissed by case workers as unsubstantiated — but only after children and parents had been subjected to questioning and home searches.

Ali, the head of the Philadelphia child welfare agency, said her department has heard from educators who felt unable to help struggling families because they feared potential criminal charges for not reporting to the abuse hotline. With the support of a federal grant, her department plans to create an alternative hotline that mandatory reporters can call when they believe a family is in need but don’t suspect children are in danger.

Adopting the language of reform activists, Ali said the goal is “turning mandatory reporters into mandatory supporters.”

But Benita Williams, former operations director of Philadelphia’s child welfare agency, warned against more radical change, stressing that mandatory reporters should never hesitate to make a report in cases of suspected child abuse.

“Just report,” said Williams, now executive director of the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance, which supports victims of child sexual abuse. “If you are not sure, report and let the professional screen that out. Don’t try to become a social worker.”

Children wait at an ice cream truck on a street corner in Philadelphia. Child welfare reform advocates have argued for providing parents with more resources to care for their families.

Stephanie Mei-Ling for NBC News and ProPublica

Phoebe Jones, who helps lead DHS-Give Us Back Our Children, a group that advocates on behalf of Philadelphia mothers and grandmothers who’ve had children taken from them for issues related to poverty and domestic violence, argues that the real solution is to address the issues underlying most ChildLine reports, by providing parents and caregivers with a universal basic income to ensure they have what they need to care for children.

“Rather than taking children from their mothers and paying foster parents to care for them,” Jones said, “why don’t we invest that money in families?”

Mike Hixenbaugh reported from Philadelphia; Suzy Khimm reported from Washington, D.C.; Agnel Philip reported from New York.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Pennsylvania police chief, friend charged with raping child over 7 year period

A small Pennsylvania town police chief and his friend were charged with raping a child over a seven-year period when they were teenagers starting when the girl was 4 years old, state prosecutors said Wednesday.

Brent Getz, 27, was arrested and charged Tuesday along with Gregory Wagner, 28. The alleged victim said both men sexually assaulted her, often at the same time, from 2005 to 2012.

The investigation began in 2012 when the child, who was 12 at the time, reported Wagner had been assaulting her, prosecutors said. No charges were filed following an investigation.

Three years later, a criminal complaint was prepared charging Wagner, but it was dismissed due to a paperwork error. Charges were never refiled.

In August, a police officer revisited the case. It was then the victim said Getz also sexually abused her. Getz became chief of police earlier this year in Weissport, a town of 412 people in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

It is unknown whether council members who appointed Getz knew of the allegations. A message was left with a phone number found for Paulette Watson, the mayor of Weissport.

Wagner admitted he and Getz sexually abused the girl together, prosecutors said. Attorney information for either man could not be found in court documents. Both men remain jailed. Messages could not be left with phone numbers found for Getz and Wagner.

The victim said she was sexually assaulted hundreds of times between the ages of 4 and 11, both by Wagner and Getz. She said Wagner made her watch pornography with him. The attorney general's office did not disclose how the men knew the child.

Authorities found many electronic devices at Wagner's home, including his cellphone, which had Google searches of terms related to child pornography, prosecutors said.

Both Getz and Wagner were arraigned on charges. The men are scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing April 3.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Wyoming County Man Charged With Child Exploitation Crimes

 Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Middle District of Pennsylvania

SCRANTON – The United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania announced today that Sean Michael Fryer, age 37, of Factoryville, Pennsylvania was indicted yesterday by a federal grand jury for multiple child exploitation crimes.
According to United States Attorney David J. Freed, the indictment alleges that Fryer used the internet and a cellular device to coerce a minor to produce child pornography and to engage in sexual conduct.  The indictment further alleges that Fryer received, distributed and possessed material in the form of visual depictions involving the use of minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct. 
The charges stem from an investigation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) – Philadelphia Division.  Assistant United States Attorney Michelle Olshefski is prosecuting the case.
This case was brought as part of Project Safe Childhood, a nationwide initiative launched in May 2006 by the Department of Justice to combat the growing epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse. Led by the United States Attorneys' Offices and the Criminal Division's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, Project Safe Childhood marshals federal, state, and local resources to locate, apprehend, and prosecute individuals who sexually exploit children, and to identify and rescue victims. For more information about Project Safe Childhood, please visit  For more information about internet safety education, please visit and click on the tab "resources."
Indictments are only allegations. All persons charged are presumed to be innocent unless and until found guilty in court.
A sentence following a finding of guilt is imposed by the Judge after consideration of the applicable federal sentencing statutes and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
The maximum penalty under federal law is life imprisonment, a term of supervised release following imprisonment, and a fine. Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the Judge is also required to consider and weigh a number of factors, including the nature, circumstances and seriousness of the offense; the history and characteristics of the defendant; and the need to punish the defendant, protect the public and provide for the defendant's educational, vocational and medical needs. For these reasons, the statutory maximum penalty for the offense is not an accurate indicator of the potential sentence for a specific defendant.
Project Safe Childhood

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Scathing Pennsylvania grand jury report accuses hundreds of priests of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children

A scathing grand jury report released Tuesday reveals accusations of sexual abuse against 301 priests — 37 from the Allentown Diocese — whose actions went unchecked for decades in dioceses across Pennsylvania.

Instead of reporting pedophiles, dioceses routinely shuffled them from parish to parish, enabling them to prey upon new victims, the document shows. The statewide grand jury, launched by former Attorney General Kathleen Kane, spent two years on the most exhaustive investigation of the church taken on by a state. It covered allegations in the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton dioceses, which collectively minister to more than 1.7 million Catholics.

"The time for institutions to place their own interests above protecting our children is over,” state Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference moments after the report was released. “I will not tolerate it."

Among those cited as enablers was Allentown’s bishop, Alfred Schlert, who played a role in the diocese’s handling of complaints when he was vicar general, or top aide, to Bishop Edward Cullen. Shapiro pointed out that Schlert was among those promoted in the years since he handled abuse allegations.

The 23 members of the grand jury took testimony from dozens of witnesses. But it was in the church’s own files — more than half a million pages of internal diocesan documents in “secret archives” — that the grand jury found the names of more than a thousand children who were victimized, most of them boys.

“We believe that the real number — of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward — is in the thousands,” the report noted.

Several victims who joined Shapiro at the news conference in Harrisburg wiped tears as a video of their stories played.

Shapiro said the abuse was “systematically covered up by church officials in Pennsylvania and at the Vatican.” He said those officials weaponized the faith, using it against victims and to protect the institution at all cost. Victims were reluctant to come forward, some waiting decades before summoning the courage to tell their stories. Because of that, the grand jury recommended an end to the statute of limitations on criminal cases. “We should just get rid of it,” the report said.

Only one of the six bishops — Erie’s Lawrence Persico — testified before the grand jury, Shapiro said. The others sent statements.

The 884-page redacted grand jury report — with an additional 472 pages in attachments — was to be released by the end of June, but the state Supreme Court halted that when more than a dozen of those named in the report filed objections, claiming the allegations would damage their reputations while denying them their constitutional right to due process.

The Morning Call joined a media coalition appealing the decision that included The Associated Press, The Washington Post and the Philadelphia Media Network, which publishes The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. The court decided to release the report with the names of the priests who appealed redacted.

Every redaction, Shapiro said, represents a story that needs to be told.

Shapiro highlighted the case of the Rev. Thomas D. Skotek, who sexually assaulted a girl in the Scranton Diocese while he was pastor of St. Casimir in Freeland in the 1980s and then aided her in getting an abortion when she became pregnant. Bishop James C. Timlin, then head of the diocese, wrote a letter to Skotek informing him that he would be sent for treatment, adding: “This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief. … Please be assured that I am most willing to do whatever I can to help.” That letter, Shapiro said, was in the diocese’s files.

Arthur Long, a Harrisburg Diocese priest at the time, admitted to a sexual relationship with four or five girls, telling a church official, “God wants us to express our love for each other in this way.”

And in graphic detail, Shapiro summarized an allegation against Monsignor Thomas Benestad, former pastor of Notre Dame of Bethlehem and St. Francis of Assisi in Allentown, who is accused of sexually abusing a boy for two years beginning when the child was 9 and taking catechism classes at St. Bernard's. A nun brought the boy to Benestad because he had worn shorts to class, which was against the rules. Benestad, the report says, told the boy to get on his knees and pray. The priest then forced the boy to perform oral sex on him. And afterward, washed the child’s mouth out with holy water, the report says. Benestad later retired and moved to Florida.

Among the most tragic cases was that of “Joey B,” who was so severely sexually assaulted by the Rev. Edward Graff in the Allentown Diocese that he injured his back and later became addicted to painkillers and overdosed. Before his death, Joey wrote, "Father Graff did more than rape me. He killed my potential.”

Graff, who left the Allentown Diocese in 1988, was jailed in Texas in 2002 on charges of molesting a teenage boy. He also has been accused of abusing state Rep. Mark Rozzi when Rozzi was an altar boy at Holy Guardian Angels parish in Reading in the 1980s. Graff, 73, died in jail in November 2002.

Schlert called the incidents outlined in the report “abhorrent and tragic.” In a written statement, he said, “We apologize to everyone who has been hurt by the past actions of some members of the clergy. We know that these past actions have caused pain and mistrust for many people. The victims and survivors of abuse are in our prayers daily.”
He added that much has changed in the past 15 years, notably, that the diocese immediately removes accused priests from ministry and reports allegations to law enforcement.
Shapiro said the investigation reveals that law enforcement as well as church officials failed to protect children. The “cover-up,” he said, “was sophisticated.”

"They claim to have changed their ways. They claim to have put appropriate safeguards in place," Shapiro said of the dioceses. "Statements are one thing. The proof of their claims will be if they support the grand jury recommendations."

According to the report, Schlert was involved in attempts to discredit a woman who alleged she was molested by the Rev. Francis J. Fromholzer in 1965, when she was a student and Fromholzer a teacher at Allentown Central Catholic High School. Fromholzer denied the allegation, the report notes, and then decided to retire.

In fall of 2002, months after The Boston Globe broke the stories that sparked an international scandal, Schlert, then a monsignor, and Monsignor Gerald Gobitas were receiving discrediting information about victim Juliann Bortz through a diocesan attorney, Tom Traud, who was relying on tips from a priest’s relative.

The diocese’s files show that church officials found Bortz’s accusation against Fromholzer credible and that a second victim had accused him of also touching her inappropriately. That victim was expelled from school, though the report doesn’t specify which school, after reporting the abuse to her principal. The principal, the Rev. Robert M. Forst, told her to repeat the “made up” story to her father, who was known to be abusive. The man responded by beating his daughter, the girl told the grand jury.

The report notes that the diocese was conducting its investigation under the watch of then-Allentown Bishop Edward Cullen, who also was cited in a Philadelphia grand jury report as being among church officials aware of accusations there against pedophile priests who were then reassigned. Cullen served as vicar general in Philadelphia before becoming Allentown bishop in 1998.

Reached at his Lower Macungie Township home Tuesday, Cullen declined to comment to The Morning Call, saying, “I don’t want to discuss anything with you.”

Schlert denied trying to discredit Bortz. “As a diocese, we treat victims with compassion, respect and dignity,” he said. “We did not direct anyone to do otherwise.”

Among the more interesting findings in the report was the correspondence about abuse cases that church officials kept, often as part of its secret archives. Those letters strengthen the report’s conclusions, said Jules Epstein, a Temple University law professor.
“To the extent that this report is based on church documents, the documents speak for themselves,” he said.

Those documents might have been revealed a decade earlier, said Altoona lawyer Richard Serbin and Reading attorney Kenneth Millman, if the lawyers were allowed to pursue the cases of about 100 clients who alleged abuse by Pennsylvania priests. But their cases hit the statute of limitations and never made it to the discovery phase.

Serbin called the grand jury report sad in its at once shocking and depressing detail and, yet, “wonderful in the sense that the public will now know, and the shield of secrecy will come off.”

The report offers victims validation that the law didn’t, Millman said. “That’s why it was so important to have this grand jury report and give them the chance to tell their story and tell people what happened to them”

Attached to the grand jury’s report are roughly 470 pages of responses — from the dioceses that were investigated, to individual priests who were named. In the Allentown diocese, Benestad, Fromholzer and the late Monsignor Anthony Muntone, who was vicar general under Cullen’s predecessor Bishop Thomas Welsh, all submitted responses in which they denied the grand jury’s findings against them.

Benestad accused the panel of falsely implying that he retired because of the allegations.
“Monsignor Benestad has never done anything that would be deemed inappropriate with any individual,” his attorney, John Waldron, wrote.

Muntone, who died in May, denied in his written response that he enabled priests to abuse children.

“It is Monsignor Muntone’s position that during the time frame mentioned in the investigating grand jury he was not in a position of authority to appoint priests to various positions in the [diocese] of Allentown,” wrote Waldron, who was also his lawyer.
Mitchell Garabedian, who represented many of the Boston victims and was featured in the movie “Spotlight,” said those who spoke up about being abused should be commended for having the courage to come forward. He added that the report, “lays out the standard blueprint of dishonesty, immorality, criminality and cover-up of the Catholic Church which has been previously revealed in Boston and archdioceses and dioceses worldwide.”
He called the Vatican “complicit in the cover-up.”

Call to extend limits

It is unclear whether any charges will come out of the report, because of time limits imposed by Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations on child sexual abuse crimes.

Under state law, criminal charges can be filed up to the time the person making the claim of child sexual abuse is 50 years old. Civil claims can be filed for child sexual abuse until the person alleging the abuse turns 30.

Previously released grand jury reports on the other two Pennsylvania dioceses — Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown — advocated a two-year window to allow people alleging long-ago abuse to pursue civil claims. Efforts to pass that legislation have stalled or been blocked.

Rozzi, D-Berks, who put forward the legislation, said he will reintroduce legislation to extend the statute of limitations.

Calling the report “monumental,” Marci Hamilton, a Bucks County attorney and the founder of Child USA, an organization that seeks to prevent child abuse, said this and other grand jury reports on abusive priests indicate why victims need more time to make civil claims.
“What these reports are showing is the lack of justice that is being created from the short statute of limitations,” she said.

The church has said changing the statute of limitations would be unfair to schools and parishes and could be financially crippling.

In a letter to be read at Allentown Diocese churches this weekend Schlert apologizes to Catholics for the way the church mishandled cases and reassures them that the diocese has better protections in place to keep the past from repeating.

“I sincerely apologize for the past sins and crimes committed by some members of the clergy. I apologize to the survivors of abuse and their loved ones. For the times when those in the Church did not live up to Christ’s call to holiness, and did not do what needed to be done, I apologize,” Schlert wrote.

“I also apologize to you, the faithful of the diocese, for the toll this issue has taken over the years: the sadness, the anger, the doubts, and the embarrassment it may have brought you as a Catholic. I ask for your forgiveness, and I thank you for your perseverance and for your courageous witness to our faith.”


Grand juries also looked into allegations in the state's other two dioceses.
2005: Philadelphia grand jury investigates allegations against more than 60 priests, finding abusive priests were moved around and not reported to police.

2011: Phildelphia's second grand jury focused on the church's practices since 2005, finding many credibly accused priests remained active; charges are filed against three priests, a teacher and Monsignor William Lynn, who was convicted of recklessly endangering children for not removing an abusive priest. His conviction was overturned, then reinstated and he awaits retrial.

2016: A statewide grand jury into the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese uncovers allegations against more than 50 priests and an effort to keep the complaints secret.

Tim Darragh, Laurie Mason Schroeder, Sarah Wojcik, Carol Thompson and Christina Tatu contributed to this story.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Dauphin County Children & Youth inspection marred by 84 citations:

random review of Dauphin County Children & Youth agency cases resulted in 84 citations for offenses ranging from misfiled paperwork to caseworkers working without required child abuse clearances.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services reviewed the agency on several different occasions for its yearly inspection, as well as "for the purpose of investigating complaints" and ultimately placed the agency on a six-month provisional license. Its report on the ruling was released to the public Thursday.

"In the past year, the overall level of services with the children, families and service providers has declined," the state wrote in its review, commenting on the quality of services being provided to area children and families.
The state highlighted a number of problem areas, including issues with screen-out and referral paperwork, missteps in the process of assuring the safety of all children and a lack of family engagement.

Quality of care diminished as a result of an increased staff turnover rate, a restructuring of the agency that did away with specialty units and an increase in cases referred to the agency, according to the state's report. 

Several issues were found with mandated Safety Assessments including, missing entirely or conducting late assessments, not listing all children, children not seen within required timeframes, missing or late supervisor reviews and signatures and children listed as "safe" when their realities should have been deemed and listed as "unsafe."

Children at risk

Some violations put children's immediate safety at risk.

In some cases, "there was no indication that the safety of the victim child and other children in the home was ensured immediately," according to the report.

Caseworkers should also assess the risk under which all children within a targeted home live, but this didn't happen in all cases.

The findings outline issues that some may find trivial — a forgotten photograph, putting down the wrong race for a child on paper work, not collecting the correct records or signatures and missing case review deadlines by a day. 

Others, a bit more troubling — examples of caseworkers finding clear safety threats, but not documenting any protective steps; No proof that families were ever visited and cases where a child was placed in out-of-home care and not put through the "child grievance procedure" to explain what was happening.

Caseworkers closed out cases without seeing and re-evaluating children within the mandatory 30 days of the caseworker ending the case. A number of cases showed a child was classified as "unsafe" and in placement but was listed as safe on assessment sheets.
Some cases were closed out without a safety assessment or visiting the child's home at all.
Conversely, in one case, a child was found to be "safe" but a safety plan — which is not necessary for the determination — was still found in the file.

The county submitted a corrective plan to address some of the issues in last year's licensing rotation, but the violations remained, only to once again be spotted as a problem area during the annual-April inspection. 

Dauphin County will undergo additional reviews as the state provides greater oversight until the agency is granted a full license. A county can receive three provisional licenses before its license would be revoked by the state, but the state also can revoke a license if it finds the agency is negatively impacting the safety of the children it serves.

The county provided the state with a list of cases, to which the department selected a random sample. The findings were enough to downgrade the agency's standing.

The state considered "the number of violations, the nature and severity of those violations, whether the violations are systemic and cross numerous cases and repeated from one year to another," according to an email from Kait Gillis, press secretary for the Department of Human Services.

"Violations that impact the safety and well-being of children are given greater weight," Gillis added.  

A grand jury probe into the agency — which was independent of the DHS review — revealed similar issues and children's safety impacted to the point of death. 

On the state's part, all fatality and near fatality cases are examined for regulatory violations as part of the department's fatality and near fatality review process. 

A number of the violations were repeat offenses that had been previously identified in the agency during other licensing cycles, but the citations did not stop at the case level.
Staff members were hired without proper criminal, child abuse and FBI clearances. An unnamed caseworker was employed with the agency for nearly a year before termination and the proper clearances had never been supplied. Others waited more than a month to supply the proper clearances to be working with children.

While Dauphin County officials could fight the downgrade, they don't intend to pushback against the state's determination.

'Serious mistakes'

"The department has acknowledged that serious mistakes were made in the past and will not be appealing today's issuance of a provisional license," said Amy Richards Harinath, county spokeswoman, in a statement released in response to PennLive's request for an interview with Children & Youth interim administrator Joseph Dougher and oversight Commissioner George Hartwick.

The agency, Richards Harinath said, is confident that it's corrective decisions already implemented address all of the violations and, "most importantly, will serve to better protect the children and families of Dauphin County."

In fact, a majority of the issues identified by the state had "already been addressed" by the April inspection, according to the statement. Richards Harinath acknowledged that several of the violations came down to compliance issues and not quality of care.

"Many [violations] had to do with a failure to properly document how cases were handled and not submitting reports to the state on time," she said.

By Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico's standards, the county is "heading in the right direction," and he called for state officials to address issues that can't "easily be fixed at the local level."

"Not all the issues uncovered during the grand jury investigation can easily be fixed at the local level," Marsico said in a released statement. "Some issues, such as a review of caseworker training and high caseloads need to be addressed at the statewide level."

DHS will rule again on the status of Dauphin County's license when the provisional license expires on Jan. 24, 2016.

By the numbers

Dauphin County Children & Youth saw a "significant increase" in staff turnover rate with 28 members of the staff leaving the agency:
  • 1 Administrative Staff;
  • 3 Clerical support;
  • 2 Fiscal staff;
  • 1 Case aide;
  • 1 Legal staff;
  • 20 caseworkers.
The state reviewed the following Dauphin County Children & Youth records:
  • 20 of 988 Child Protective Service records;
  • 30 of 1,961 General Protective Services intake records, including 10 "Once & Done" records;
  • 20 of 296 Ongoing/In-home Services records;
  • 10 of 319 Placement records;
  • 43 agency Resource family home records, including 37 new resource homes
  • 4 of 32 Adoption records; and
  • 169 personnel records, including 24 new employees.
Dauphin County has participated in the Quality Service Review process:
  • First review in 2012;
  • Second review in 2014;
  • Third review scheduled for 2016.
The public welfare agency serves "a diverse population":
  • About 271,000 residents make up the population.
Editor's note: To report suspected child abuse, call ChildLine at 800-932-0313 (TDD 866-872-1677)

Megan Trimble | 

 Trinity Mount Ministries Website