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Adoption, foster circles reeling over Sandusky portrait

| Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011

Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant football coach at the center of the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal, should have been a familiar figure to child welfare officials around his central Pennsylvania home for decades.

Long before his arrest this month on 40 charges related to child sex abuse, Sandusky successfully navigated the system's various background checks to become the adoptive father of five sons and a daughter, a foster parent, a host for a half-dozen Fresh Air Fund children from New York City and a congressional honoree as an "Angel in Adoption."

Court records show Sandusky and his wife, Dottie, were designated to coordinate visits with his grandchildren as recently as last year when one son's marriage began to disintegrate.

Child advocates say all of that makes the portrait prosecutors have painted of Sandusky as a serial pedophile even more disturbing.

"As a professional and an adoptive mom, it is very, very upsetting. It's just the most sickening, disheartening thing you can imagine," said Debbie Cohen, a former child welfare caseworker. Cohen is district supervisor for Adoptions from the Heart, a private agency licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Delaware and Virginia.

Cohen said the law requires that licensed social workers screen prospective families through a number of nets, including FBI checks and child abuse clearances. Prospective parents undergo reference checks, interviews and a medical report that asks a physician to certify that an individual is mentally and physically prepared to be a parent, she said.

"A history of child abuse would be an absolute eliminator," said Christine Jacobs, of the National Adoption Center in Philadelphia.

Sandusky's attorney, Joe Amendola, did not return calls for comment.

He told ABC News an allegation that Sandusky recently abused a grandchild is unfounded. Amendola later told CNN that he attributed the accusation to ongoing proceedings in an acrimonious divorce.

Shortly after Sandusky's arrest, his former daughter-in-law -- who last year agreed to an arrangement in which Sandusky and his wife would coordinate her children's visits with their father -- obtained a court order prohibiting Sandusky from unsupervised visits with her children. She did not return repeated calls for comment.

Citing the investigation, a spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office declined to comment when asked about Sandusky's adoptive or foster children.

"We're prohibited from discussing the details of a grand jury investigation," Nils Frederiksen said.

Carol Smith, director of the Centre County child welfare office, which oversees 80 children in court-ordered placements, would not discuss Sandusky or the operations of her office.

In his autobiography, "Touched: The Jerry Sandusky Story," published 11 years ago, Sandusky speaks affectionately of his adoptive children, now ages 33 to 46, and the children who passed through his home over the years. The Sanduskys have no biological children.

His six children have not commented publicly since his arrest. In the foreword to his book, Sandusky's adoptive daughter, Kara Werner, wrote: "My brothers EJ, Ray, Jeff, Jon, Matt and I thank the friends and family of Penn State football and The Second Mile and we thank you, the reader, for taking time to learn about the greatest man we have ever known, Jerry Sandusky."

The book relates how Sandusky hosted boys from The Second Mile, a State College-based charity for at-risk children that he founded in 1977.

Authorities allege he used the charity and his status at Penn State to meet and cultivate eight boys whom he is accused of molesting over a 15-year period.

Questions were raised

Buried in his autobiography are hints that some people questioned Sandusky as he battled to obtain custody of his youngest son, Matthew, in 1995, while the boy was a foster child with the family. Sandusky said his family met Matthew through The Second Mile when the boy was "7 or 8" and began visiting their home.

Sandusky conceded the road to this final adoption -- granted in the youth's late teens -- was rocky.

Matthew's biological mother, Debra Long, went public in a TV interview last week with complaints that authorities ignored her concerns about Matthew's relationship with Sandusky. She said that over time, her son went from an outgoing child to a sullen youth who often hid when Sandusky visited.

"It got to the point where the authorities were going to take him away from us," Sandusky wrote in his book. He said two people -- a psychiatrist who wrote an assessment recommending the placement and a judge -- agreed that Matthew, who said he loved the Sanduskys, should be awarded to the family.

The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News reported this month a juvenile probation officer wrote to the court questioning Matthew's safety and progress while in Sandusky's care when the youth attempted suicide several months after being placed in the family's home as a foster child.

Court records filed in conjunction with Matthew Sandusky's divorce indicate he returned to the family home when his marriage dissolved.

Easier road to adoption

Debra Schilling Wolfe, executive director of Field Center for Children's Policy, Practice and Research at the University of Pennsylvania, said the fact that the Sanduskys were foster parents may have worked in their favor.

"There is a different process when a foster parent is looking to adopt versus placing a child for adoption with a new family. If there is what has been viewed as successful placement, a child is doing well and there is a healthy bond, that is always viewed as the first choice to avoid disruption for a child," she said.

"To be licensed as foster parents, there is and should be a very stringent screening process. Yet, if someone has never been reported for sexual abuse, if there is no criminal record and they present well, that may not be picked up."

It is unclear whether Sandusky or his wife underwent psychological screening tests when they were evaluated as foster or adoptive parents.

Attorneys and child welfare advocates said such tests are not part of the routine screening process for prospective parents and are recommended only when something raises a red flag, such as a record of mental health issues.

There are instances in which a child's need may mask problems.

Debbie Cohen said she will never forget a girl she supervised many years ago when she was a child welfare caseworker.

"I remember a little girl, she was maybe 11 or 12, told me after her adoption was finalized that she was being abused," Cohen said. "I asked her why she didn't tell me before and she said, 'Because I knew you wouldn't let them adopt me if you knew about it.' This was a girl who had been in a number of other placements and she'd been abused by her birth family before that. It broke my heart."

No system is perfect

Deborah L. Lesko, a Downtown family law attorney who worked on 4,000 adoptions since 1983, said even the best system has flaws.

"Many people don't realize a lot of pedophiles come across as very good, upright people," Lesko said. "We do a very thorough screening -- background checks, home studies, criminal checks, FBI, child abuse references. But you don't have a crystal ball, and I don't know if there is any psychological test that would show (pedophilia).

"The sad part about this is, it is one case and it gets national publicity," Lesko said, adding that such publicity tends to obscure the thousands of positive results.

Barbara Jollie, a former caseworker and child welfare administrator who prosecutes abuse cases as an assistant district attorney in Westmoreland County, worries about the impact that around-the-clock publicity from the Sandusky case will have on children, especially those being abused.

"How does that kid ever feel safe• I just wonder what that kid is thinking when they're seeing this on the news," Jollie said.

"Does it make it more or less likely that they will come forward• Do they see this and realize people care and want to help, or are they worried because they are so ashamed and afraid that with all of this attention, if they come forward their names will be out there?"

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