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Reports of child abuse swamp police under updated Pennsylvania law

| Wednesday, March 2, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

If you see something, say something.

Those six words are the philosophy behind a flurry of state laws passed in the aftermath of the 2011 Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal requiring more people — from school officials and day care workers to ministers and medical professionals — to report suspected child abuse when they see it.

The results are indisputable.

Westmoreland County's Children's Bureau saw reports jump from 2,639 in 2014 to 3,226 in 2015, up 22 percent, and Allegheny County officials saw 9,062 child-abuse calls in 2014 increase to 13,112 in 2015, a 44 percent increase, records show.

And although no one is questioning the push for greater awareness of possible abuse, the surge has created a crushing workload for police officers who say they can't keep up with the reports.

“I'm currently looking at about five (child abuse reports) sitting on my desk right now that just got here within the past couple days,” Monroeville police Chief Doug Cole said.

His 46-person department used to receive only one or two such reports a month. Now it's closer to 10.

Of the 75 cases he's seen in the months since the Safe Kids Act was passed, only one or two led to criminal investigations, he said.

The Safe Kids Act contains two dozen pieces of legislation altering how the state handles reports of child abuse, defining those termed “mandatory reporters” and spelling out a reporting process.

But Cole said the number of unfounded claims generated by the act is overwhelming.

“You're just spinning your wheels,” he said.

Greensburg police Capt. Chad Zucco is feeling the same crunch.

His 27-person department used to receive one or two reports of child abuse weekly, sometimes not even that many, Zucco said. In the past year, five a week has become the norm.

“It's a tremendous number of incidents that we get here,” he said, adding that even though one detective spends nearly all of his time on child abuse reports, few of those cases lead to criminal charges.

Allegheny County Police, who said they handle about 80 percent of the county's child-abuse cases, added eight detectives to the department's child-abuse team last year.

Lt. Thomas Ianachione said the department's caseload has gone up at least 30 percent and it's a “continuing battle” to keep up with the work, but it's a battle that needs to be fought.

“I think it's good for the welfare of children. It has caused an even more critical review, and more is being reported,” he said. “In that sense, it's worth it. I don't think you can place a cost value on protecting children.”

More eyes, more work

The changes in the law have sent county officials scurrying to add staff and complete system upgrades.

In Westmoreland County, the Children's Bureau added five caseworkers last year and the district attorney's office did a major computer upgrade to track incoming reports, both moves supported by local officials.

“The No. 1 key for community safety, specifically for children, is that people are aware and they are making that report,” said Shara Saveikis, Westmoreland County Children's Bureau director.

The Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families added staff and streamlined its process for handling reports.

“We are feeling much less stressed than a year ago at this time,” intake manager Bruce Noel said.

The driving forces

Two facets of the Safe Kids Act are the main drivers of the increase in reports, officials said.

One part of the act expanded the list of “mandatory reporters” who are required to send suspicions of abuse or neglect to the state's 24-hour ChildLine phone service.

The act requires ChildLine to forward nearly all reports directly to law enforcement agencies. Previously, ChildLine would send only a fraction of cases to police, with most going to social service organizations such as the Westmoreland Children's Bureau or Allegheny County's Department of Human Services, for investigation.

Those organizations handled the investigations and called police if they believed criminal activity was involved. The law was changed because the agencies weren't always the best at making that call, said Cathy Utz, the state's deputy secretary of the Office of Children, Youth and Families. “They were not well-versed in determining whether there was a crime.”

Shining light on problem

Some of the extra calls fielded by ChildLine have been from new mandatory reporters looking for guidance about what they're supposed to report, Utz said. But small issues like that don't overshadow the overall benefits of the laws to fight child abuse, she said.

State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, who sponsored the legislation, said she is proud of its first-year impact. One illustration of that impact was a 17 percent increase — from 358 to 404 — in the number of children accepted as clients by the Westmoreland Children's Bureau after reports of abuse in 2015.

“The goal was to raise awareness and stop child abuse, and it has done that,” Ward said. “I think maybe what we need to do (is) make sure the police are not burdened with unnecessary actions ... to do a better job on educating folks on what requires reporting, on what is and what isn't abuse.”

Growing pains aside, officials agree the beefed up laws have been good for the state's children.

“The No. 1 concern is always to protect children,” said Judith Petrush, Westmoreland County assistant district attorney.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646 or jtierney@tribweb.com.

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