Column Was Based on Incorrect Pennsylvania Statistics About Child Abuse Investigations

Print More

Recently Youth Today published a column (“Pennsylvania County Has Wildly High Rate of Needless Child Abuse Investigations”) by Richard Wexler in which he wrote, “It is child welfare’s equivalent of stop-and-frisk. It happens over and over again, it’s traumatic, it’s usually baseless and unnecessary, and it’s racially biased. It is a child abuse investigation.”

Wexler used his column to invite high emotion, telling readers that child welfare professionals routinely search homes in the “middle of the night” and strip-search children.

Wexler cited a special report released recently by Pennsylvania’s auditor general.

In this report, the head of Cambria County’s children and youth agency is quoted on page 27 as saying that caseworkers “saw” 9,840 “unduplicated” children during 2016 representing “37 percent of the entire population under age 18.”

Wexler then declares that “virtually every impoverished child in Cambria County will have this state-sanctioned trauma inflicted upon her or him before reaching the age of 18.”

Had he relied on any source beyond the auditor general’s report, Wexler would have discovered the cited statistic was wrong.

Pennsylvania’s 2016 Annual Child Protective Services Report indicates on page 43 that Cambria County received 488 suspected child abuse reports. Given the scant data in this annual report published by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, this summer Center for Children’s Justice (C4CJ) undertook a deeper dive into the data.

C4CJ discovered that 502 Cambria County children experienced a child abuse investigation in 2016. Approximately 26 percent (132) of those children were under the age of 5. Seventy-three percent (97) of these young children were the subject of a report related to bodily injury. About 12 percent of the children (16) were investigated for reasons related to serious physical neglect.

Meanwhile, children between the ages of 5 and 9 (n=182) represented the largest age group of children experiencing a child abuse investigation in Cambria County. Nearly 70 percent (125) of these children were reported for incidents related to bodily injury. Approximately 19 percent (35) were related to alleged sexual abuse.

Pennsylvania counties also respond to nonabuse General Protective Services (GPS) referrals. GPS referrals are not recorded as child abuse reports and a formal child abuse investigation is not expected. Instead, a county child welfare agency may screen out these referrals or start a family assessment to learn if it may benefit from services or supports (e.g., connecting a parent to substance abuse treatment or accessing child care or stable housing) to prevent abuse and keep a child safe at home

Unfortunately, the auditor general didn’t address the disconnect between the purpose and vision of GPS versus the current on-the-ground practice.

Specific to Cambria County, 1,788 GPS referrals were received in 2016 with 74 percent (1,316) of these GPS referrals assessed affecting 2,125 children.

In all then, 2,627 Cambria County children experienced a child abuse investigation or a GPS assessment.

Meanwhile, the “unduplicated number of children served” in foster care was 218 or a rate of 6.3 percent per 1,000 children ages zero to 20. Specific to race and ethnicity, 62 percent of these children were recorded as non-Hispanic white and 80 percent were in a family-type placement setting.

So where did the shocking 9,840 “unduplicated children” number come from?

Cambria County officials relied on information from financial expenditure reports related to cost centers (e.g., adoption assistance, intake, counseling, etc.). The problem — children receive services in a number of cost centers and so the same child can be counted multiple times when the county agency adds all the children served within all the cost centers.

Wexler, relying on an inaccurate statistic, was able to create a false impression that more than 9,000 children within this small rural county had been subjected to a child abuse investigation.

Instead of striving to create hysteria, Wexler should have raised a legitimate question about how often (and why) those who champion and those who critique child welfare regularly build their advocacy upon data that is unreliable and almost always politically charged.

Cathleen Palm is the founder of the Center for Children’s Justice in Pennsylvania, which is dedicated to the nurture and protection of children within supported families. The Center is a proven leader in securing child protection policies that are research-informed, data-driven, transparent and continuously measured for quality.

  • Thank you Youth Today for publishing this thoughtful and well-researched article from Cathleen Palme. I suggest that Richard Wexler’s articles be fact-checked before being published in the future.

  • Richard Wexler

    Ms. Palm misrepresents both what I actually wrote and my source.

    My source was not simply the Auditor General’s report. Rather it was a direct quote from the director of the child welfare agency in Cambria County, Betzi White. *She* is the one who told the authors of the report that 37 percent of the county’s children were “seen” by her agency in just one year. And *she* is the one who called this count “unduplicated.” One would think she would know how many children her own agency had seen.

    Based upon her figures I wrote that “it’s reasonable to assume that if 37 percent of all children are “seen” in a single year, virtually every impoverished child in Cambria County will have this state-sanctioned trauma inflicted upon her or him before reaching the age of 18.

    Even if one uses Ms. Palm’s figure of 2,627 children, that’s still nearly ten percent of the children in the county forced to endure intrusion by a child welfare agency in a single year. If that figure is correct than in one sense Ms. Palm is right – it probably won’t happen to “virtually every impoverished child” during the course of her or his childhood. Just to most of them.

    Unfortunately, there is nothing unusual about child welfare agencies giving widely varying figures to different government agencies, usually related to definitions, whether the agency is responding voluntarily or is required to provide the data and even to who did the counting. Look, for example, at figures for entries into foster care that states give to one federal database, NCANDS, and another, AFCARS. They almost never match.

    Ms. Palm also misrepresents the nature of what, in Pennsylvania, is called “General Protective Services.” This is exactly the same thing that every other state includes as part of child protective services Pennsylvania just gives it a separate name. As in many other states, CPS agencies investigating cases labeled GPS *may* use a less intrusive means of response than a full-scale investigation, but that is within their discretion.

    Whether it’s CPS or GPS, someone from a government agency with the power to remove children is knocking on that door and intruding on the family.

    As for creating hysteria and using politically charged data, I refer readers to this detailed analysis of Ms. Palm’s behavior in that regard: https://goo.gl/heBJCk

    Richard Wexler
    National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
    http://www.nccpr.org

  • Ruth Anne White

    I read both the original and the rebuttal with great interest – excellent writing all around! If what the Center for Children’s Justice asserts here is true – that the Auditor General’s report is filled with inaccuracies, I hope that Youth Today will reach out to the AG’s office for a response to this serious indictment. The author’s correction to the Wexler article highlights the mismatch between the numbers of children served and numbers that appear in terms of what is paid for (hence the much higher number of 9,840) leave me troubled and wanting to know more about the efficacy/fiscal prudence of these expenditures. This author indicates that the County is spending the equivalent of what it would cost to serve nearly 10,000 children to serve only 218 children: “Cambria County officials relied on information from financial expenditure reports related to cost centers (e.g., adoption assistance, intake, counseling, etc.). The problem — children receive services in a number of cost centers and so the same child can be counted multiple times when the county agency adds all the children served within all the cost centers.” Somehow, this explanation makes me feel worse about the resources that are going into that county to help poor and struggling families stay together and safe. I do hope that Youth Today will write about this.

  • Pingback: PA: Column Was Based on Incorrect Pennsylvania Statistics About Child Abuse Investigations (Commentary)()

  • Families First

    It is true, PA. has had children declared dependant and removed from their homes under General Protective Services in court, without ANY proof of abuse. There are recent court rulings declaring some agencies using saftey plans to coerse “voluntary” placements, and if a parents refuses to sign they go for dependency. They use this tactic in court to prove “risks” that require removal. Ms. Palm should know this, she was advocating for changes to law for children who merely “witnessed” domestic violence. She commented on cases where children were removed based *soley* on risks.

    What educational background does Ms. Palm have besides a long history of advocacy to speak on how best to serve our children? Does she have access to personal cases to make determinations on what and what does not occur in such a closed court system?

    The fact of the matter is, studies show children are traumatized 100% of the time when they are removed from their homes even for a brief time. IMO if these agencies remove children knowing it causes trauma they should be compelled to offer that child treatment regardless of the States interest in child abuse, because it becomes a social problem according to the studies, none of which Ms. Palm seems interested in.