Pennsylvania Has Lowest Reporting of Child Abuse in U.S., Group Says

June 20, 2014 - 4:44 PM

Jerry Sandusky

Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky leaving court after his conviction on child molestation charges. (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Professionals in Pennsylvania who regularly come into contact with children are required under both state and federal law to report suspected abuse to child welfare authorities.

But experts say that even in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, reports of child abuse in Pennsylvania remain the lowest in the nation because mandated reporters, forced to choose between obeying the law and risking career-ending retaliation, are reluctant to come forward.

Pennsylvania has the lowest rate of reported child abuse in the nation, according to statistics included in an Oct. 15, 2013 letter sent to state legislative leaders by The Protect Our Children Committee, which also pointed out that the state's high legal threshold for proving child abuse also discourages reporting.

“Pennsylvania remains a statistical outlier in when it determines a child has been a victim of child abuse - 1.2 per 1,000 Pennsylvania children were victims of child abuse in 2011 whereas nationally 9.1 per 1,000 children were victims,” the letter stated.

On Monday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane is set to release the final report of a three-year internal investigation into whether top state officials tried to cover up or delay an investigation into the former Penn State assistant football coach’s serial sexual abuse of children.

Sandusky was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison after being found guilty on 45 of 48 counts for molesting ten boys he met through his now defunct Second Mile charity.

Penn State officials repeatedly “concealed Sandusky’s activities” from law enforcement, due to “a culture of reverence for the football program,” according to a previous investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh.

But even in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, many mandated reporters in Pennsylvania are afraid to report such crimes.

“The atmosphere is set up for somebody to make a report and be severely punished for reporting,” Dr. Don Bross, professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and head of the National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC), told CNSNews.com.

At a Feb. 26, 2013 legislative hearing in Harrisburg, House Children and Youth Committee chairman Katharine Watson also pointed out that mandated reporters in Pennsylvania “were scared to make a report because they were frightened. They had seen something and they thought, 'I'll lose my job.'”

Some of the fear can be traced back decades to a case in which Dr. Jim Singer, a clinical psychologist then practicing at the Dubois Regional Medical Center (DRMC), lost his license soon after reporting the suspected sexual abuse of a teenaged girl.

In Singer’s case, Bross said, “there was a tremendous punitive response to this one report – they mobilized to discredit him.”

“Some people are really afraid to call because they don’t know what kind of backlash they’re going to get,” said Dr. George Fatula, the former chair of pediatrics at Dubois who worked with Singer at the time.

“I never understood why he lost his license,” Fatula told CNSNews.com. “My thought at the time was that he was wronged pretty badly. I still think there’s people who are hesitant to file abuse reports because they’re not sure what’s going to happen to them.”

In a letter supporting Singer, Fatula admitted that he was personally threatened with legal and physical retaliation for reporting child abuse, and that state officials had done nothing about it.

In an April 12, 1994 letter from then Congressman Tom Ridge to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, Ridge cited Singer’s case, noting that: “Mandated reporters fear retaliation, and their fear is legitimate enough that they are willing to risk children’s lives by ignoring the abuse.”

Singer told CNSNews.com that he has unsuccessfully tried for years to get state and federal officials to investigate his allegations that state child welfare officials retaliated against him for reporting suspected abuse, allegations which are supported by an August 6, 1997 report by Pennsylvania State Police Lt. Ivan Hoover.

According to Hoover’s report, Dr. Albert Varacallo, then chief of medicine at Dubois, “states that he and Singer suspected child abuse in this case and arrived at the suspicion independently.” In a subsequent letter to then Gov. Robert Casey, Varacallo stated that “Singer filed the child abuse report with his consent.”

But a caseworker with Clearfield County Children & Youth Services (CYS) “did not obtain a case number…and did not request an investigation of the abuse as mandated,” according to the Hoover report. The report also stated that CYS violated state law by releasing Singer’s name to the alleged perpetrator and that other “violations of the Crimes code…exist.”

But according to Singer and others familiar with the case, there was never any follow-up investigation at either the state or federal level, and the only one who lost their job was Singer.

HB 436, which was passed by the Pennsylvania legislature and signed by Gov. Tom Corbett on April 15 in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, “increases the penalties for not reporting,” Singer told CNSNews.com. “But there’s no protection for those who do report the abuse,” he pointed out.

“If Kane claims that ‘making sure that our children are protected is the most important thing,’ then why won’t she respond to letters from state legislators seeking a bipartisan coalition to investigate child abuse reporting in Pennsylvania, past and present?” Singer asked.