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Victim advocacy groups struggle with tight budgets

| Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012, 3:54 p.m.
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller speaks during a press conference Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012, at the State College municipal building. The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association announced its 67 district attorneys and other members believe the best use of the the $60 million NCAA penalty Penn State is paying to support victims of child sexual abuse in the wake of the NCAA sanctions would be to support Children's Advocacy Centers across Pennsylvania. AP photo | Centre Daily Times, Nabil K. Mark

HARRISBURG — Two high-profile criminal cases helped increase the number of complaints alleging child sex abuse since fall, and some advocacy groups for victims are struggling with strained budgets, prosecutors and advocates said on Wednesday.

Calls to the Department of Public Welfare's 24-hour Child Line jumped about 5 percent from November through the end of June, compared with the same period in 2011, agency spokeswoman Donna Morgan said.

Those months were marked by publicity about the arrest and conviction of former Penn State University football defensive coach Jerry Sandusky, who awaits sentencing for his June conviction of molesting 10 boys, and a case in Philadelphia in which jurors convicted Roman Catholic Church supervisor Msgr. William Lynn of sending abusive priests from church to church. Lynn was sentenced to three to six years in prison.

“In the week the (Sandusky) scandal broke, Nov. 7, 2011, we recorded 4,832 calls on Child Line,” Morgan said. “The normal average for a week is 2,300.”

Officials at the county level cited a similar increase in calls, though they could not provide figures.

“Some called just to let us know what happened to them, while others ended up being prosecuted,” said Laura Ditka, who heads the Allegheny County District Attorney's child abuse and sexual assault unit.

“We have always had a lot of calls. Since Sandusky, we've had an influx of cases.”

Yet 20 Children's Advocacy Centers across the state have no dedicated funding stream and desperately need money, said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont. The problem worsened with recent budget cuts, he said.

“These programs have been forced to lay off counselors, cut counseling hours and eliminate in-school prevention programs — all of this at a time when the state's sexual assault and rape crisis programs are reporting an even greater demand for services as a result of the Sandusky prosecution,” Dermody said.

State budget cuts have not affected A Child's Place at Mercy at Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, said the organization's director, Dr. Mary Carrasco. But finding enough money to cover expenses always is a struggle, she said.

Call volume doubled during the weeks after Sandusky's November arrest, Carrasco said. “We saw a dramatic increase at that point in time.”

The uptick strained the staff at A Child's Place, whose caseworkers divide their time between court hearings, visits and interviews, she said. They typically handle about 700 cases a year, not including calls that need no further investigation.

At the same time, businesses and nonprofits asked the nine caseworkers for help in reviewing and rewriting policies on reporting suspected child sexual abuse, Carrasco said.

The Sandusky case and the Philadelphia trial likely prompted some people who remained silent about their childhood abuse to come forward, said Adams County District Attorney Shawn Wagner, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

The association asked Penn State and the NCAA to use money from a $60 million endowment fund — created to help child abuse victims after Sandusky's conviction — for Children's Advocacy Centers across the state.

The endowment money will come from a fine levied against Penn State as one sanction after a report last month that found top university officials turned their heads from signs of Sandusky's abuse. Under a consent decree between Penn State and the NCAA, the endowment money cannot be used to pay any potential damages resulting from civil lawsuits.

“In our analysis, Pennsylvania's Children's Advocacy Centers should be considered the priority for the NCAA's endowment funding,” said Wagner. The community centers offer a comprehensive approach to assisting child sexual abuse victims, including treatment, prosecution and prevention.

Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico declined to say how much of the $60 million the group wants for the centers.

Dermody said the consent decree did not specify how to distribute the money. In a letter to Penn State President Rodney Erickson, Dermody noted that details about the endowment are scarce, and he asked whether child sexual abuse experts would have input.

NCAA spokeswoman Emily Potter said the money “will benefit external programs across the country that help prevent child sexual abuse or assist victims of abuse. We are currently finalizing the details on how the endowment will be administered.”

Penn State spokesman David LaTorre said, “The university is working to formulate a plan to create and administer the fund.”

Not all child advocacy agencies recorded increased calls about suspected abuse.

The Allegheny County Department of Human Services' caseload did not change, spokeswoman Elaine Plunkett said.

The Child Advocacy Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, which serves 1,200 victims of “child maltreatment” each year, reported no increase.

“Our center has not seen a significant change in numbers over the past year but the number of children requiring services remains strikingly high,” the center said.

Staff writer Mike Wereschagin contributed to this report. Brad Bumsted is state Capitol writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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