Child protection dilemma: Take the child, leave the child
By MERRIELL MOYER, Lebanon Daily News
Oct. 21, 2017
LEBANON, Pa. (AP) — When a 6-year old Palmyra boy was found living with soda bottles full of urine and 27 dogs that never went outside, neighbors and even extended family of the child were frustrated: They'd called child services before, so why was the boy still in the home?
The 'why' is complicated - and in real life the role of Children and Youth Services doesn't work like things do in the movies, or on TV.
Police called county Child and Youth Services in to evaluate the boy, who is now living with a family member.
The story elicited a lot of reaction around Lebanon County - including extended family and neighbors who told reporters that "numerous" calls had been made about getting that boy a better environment.
"Do you take the child?"
The boy's father and friends of the family said they had made calls to Lebanon's CYS over a period of several years about the situation the boy was living in, but they claim that no one from CYS responded to their calls.
"Hypothetically, if we get a referral based on horrid conditions, and the conditions put that child at risk - there are health issues, there are safety issues, there are extreme sanitary condition issues - that child would not remain in that home," James Holtry, executive director Lebanon County Children and Youth Services, said, speaking only on neglect cases in general and not on the case specifically.
"People see CYS in one of two ways," Cathleen Palm, founder of The Center for Children's Justice, said. "Either they see them rushing right into a home to take children out of the home with no due process or justification, and on the flip side people think, 'We called and we called and they didn't do anything.' Sometimes you can have cases that are true on either end of that spectrum, but more often every time CYS is called they are called in on that middle ground where it's not so black and white. Do you take the child? Do you leave the child?"
In cases of general neglect, if CYS removes a child from their home that decision must pass muster in court.
"We have to have legitimate reasons to do that," Holtry said. "If we feel we need to remove a child because there are significant safety factors and we feel we need to remove this child immediately we will then call the judge, explain the circumstances to the judge and get his authorization for us to obtain emergency custody and place the child."
That is followed up with a 72-hour emergency hearing, with CYS reviewing the factors that involved the child's removal and any additional information that came up during that period. The judge then must decide whether the emergency custody is maintained or removed, Holtry said.
Finding a home
If a child does need to be placed in a home other than their own, placement with relatives is explored if there are any available.
"Typically, kinship - aunts, uncles - are explored if we need to place," Holtry said. "Typically, we try to explore relatives if the parent tells us who the relatives are."
That relative is then subject to checks to insure they are a safe alternative for the child, Sharon Gassert, child abuse supervisor Lebanon County Children and Youth Services, said.
"We would research if that relative is appropriate, which means visiting their home, doing checks on them and then they would have to sign a safety plan," she said.
"We have assessments that we do when we meet with a family - 14 factors that we have to consider," Gassert said. "It could be where people are unable to care for their children because they are under the influence or have something that's preventing them from being able to take care of their child, like a heroin overdose and they have a child in the home. Obviously, we are responding right away to that."
The process of determining whether or not a child should be removed from a home in a general neglect case is not a simple one, according to Holtry.
"The safety threats are the sorts of things caseworkers need to go through trainings for," he said. "There's all kinds of factors and it's really difficult - and I don't want to say this in a derogatory way - but it is really difficult to explain that process to a person in the public who is not familiar with everything."
Responding to referrals
If a call regarding a child, called a referral, is considered legitimate, a CYS caseworker would review the allegations with the family and interview the child and the other members of the household, Holtry said.
"And more often than not, when we go to a home to do an investigation we are not just looking at that specific allegation we are also looking at other things," Holtry said. "There may be things that require our involvement that weren't even recorded. We are looking at the whole picture."
If a parent refuses to let a caseworker into their home, they can't just force their way in.
"Occasionally, we may have to get law enforcement, but that's still not going to guarantee (we get access)," Holtry said. "Unless there is a significant safety threat law enforcement probably won't be able to do a lot. On extremely rare cases, we may have to solicit the courts to get a court order."
Multiple referrals would not necessarily lead CYS to investigate allegations.
"If we get repeated referrals the decision is not based on the number of referrals we get, but it's based on the allegations contained within that referral," Holtry said.
"If they called the hotline or even here (at the office) and they are anonymous the supervisor might say, 'I need more information,' because they didn't give the right information, so we may not have enough of the details to respond to them," Gassert said. "It is important for the public to know that you have to give all the information and be very specific."
However, if CYS did respond to the call, the person who made the report would not necessarily hear back from CYS.
"People who make reports, if they are a mandated reporter (such as doctors, police or school officials), are supposed to get feedback," Palm said. "I think the bigger challenge is not whether they get feedback or not, but in so many ways there is still such a disconnect between what people think the system can do and what the system really is empowered to do."
Through The Center for Children's Justice, Palm hopes to promote community responsibility so every Pennsylvania child is protected from child abuse, including sexual abuse, with the goal to ensure that every Pennsylvania child is nurtured and protected within a permanent family, according to the organization's website. To that end, the center does a lot of work with state officials on legislation dealing with child welfare laws.
"We've been doing public policy around these issues for more than two decades - before Gerry Sandusky was arrested, the Center led the effort," Palm said. "We called for a statewide taskforce. We said it was time to look at our laws to see whether they were protective enough of children."
Palm feels that county CYS, whether in Lebanon or any other county in the state, are misunderstood.
So placement is not something that is considered lightly, and is generally only used in situations where the child's safety is jeopardized such as a lack of supervision depending on the child's age, domestic violence in the home that isn't directly affecting the child and a multitude of other factors.
Child abuse and neglect statistics in Lebanon County
The state's child protective services law requires the Department of Human Services to provide an annual report to the governor and general assembly on the operations county children and youth agencies, according to the 2016 Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Report.
The 2016 report provides county, regional and statewide information based on child abuse reports or general protective services reports received between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2016.
General protective services reports "do not rise to the level of suspected child abuse but allege a need for intervention to prevent serious harm to children," the 2016 report states.
When reports are received at ChildLine, which is responsible for receiving verbal and electronic referrals 24 hours a day, seven days a week statewide, their staff assess the allegations, categorize the report and send the report to the appropriate county children and youth agency for assessment.
In 2016, Lebanon County had a total of 532 reports of child abuse with 58 of the reports being substantiated. Of the 58 substantiated reports, 39 of the victims were girls and 19 were boys.
There was one reported fatality in the county, that of a 5-month old boy on January 15.
There were 1,771 total reports for general protective services, which includes general neglect cases, with 1,502 reports screened out and 269 assessed. Of the 269 reports assessed, 112 were found to be valid.
Of the 1,502 reports that were screened out, 153 were previously assessed for the same concern, 172 did not allege abuse or neglect, 46 had insufficient information, 36 were information only where the child or family requested information only and no other concerns existed warranting an assessment, and 7 involved another state or agency that requested an assessment, but the child or family was not in need of service.
Another 784 of the 1,502 reports involved face-to-face contact between the agency and the child and family, but no further action was required. There were 69 reports where the agency contacted the child and family via phone and found that no further action was required, and three reports where the child and family were referred to another community service that would better serve their needs.
A referral was made to law enforcement officials in 102 of the reports because the person who allegedly abused the child did not fall under the definition of perpetrator according to the state's child protective services law and there were no child safety concerns.
There were 130 other reports that fell under a reason that did not fall into the other categories that require the agency to record the specific reason.
Lebanon County spent $682,206 on expenditures related to child abuse investigations and general protective services assessments, but the child welfare budget is extremely complex and involves funds from the county, the state and the federal government, according to James Holtry, executive director Lebanon County Children and Youth Services.
"You have your expenditures, then you apply your federal money, your planned program income - which would be like if a child is in placement and the parent has to pay child support, which is determined by domestic relations - you then remove your program income, you remove your federal money and then your state money and then what's left is what the county has to pay," Karen Alonzo, fiscal operations officer at Lebanon County Children and Youth Services, said.
Lebanon County's CYS budget came in at around $8.2 million in part because juvenile probation also falls under their budget, Holtry said.
Information from: Lebanon Daily News, http://www.ldnews.com