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How can deadly cases of child abuse go undetected? | FOX43 Children of the State

FOX43's Grace Griffaton asked how children can fall through the cracks. She explains the differences between GPS and CPS investigations and more.

PENNSYLVANIA, USA — Every year, counties across Pennsylvania spend anywhere from a few thousand to more than $1 million investigating child abuse reports, according to data from the PA Department of Human Services or DHS. The latest DHS data reveals more than 50 children died because of abuse; another 90 almost lost their lives. 

FOX43 decided to dive into some of the most severe cases from the area. Grace Griffaton examines how some go under the radar.

The children are not forgotten: Grace Packer, 14, of Bucks County, Jarrod Tutko, 9, of Dauphin County, and Maxwell Schollenberger, 12, of Lebanon County. These are just some of the children killed by the people police say should've loved them the most.

"Being a hardened marine, that just rips me apart," Rep. Frank Ryan (R) of Lebanon County told FOX43 earlier this year.

Rep. Ryan didn't know Schollenberger personally, but the boy's horrific death more than one year ago still leaves the lawmaker unsettled. Police say Schollenberger's parents starved the boy, neglected him, and left him in dark room in their Annville Township home; they left the 12-year-old alone with no escape. 

"He was so close to a school. Hearing kids play, while he was being abused, I cannot fathom," Rep. Ryan said with tears.

Soon after, and less than three miles from Schollenberger's home, prosecutors filed 20 felony charges against Stephanie and Robert Duncan of North Annville Township, Lebanon County. The couple is accused of physically punishing their five adopted children. Police say they deprived the kids of food, water, heat, and bathroom privileges. Thankfully, law enforcement say they survived the torture.

"You have a mom and dad who are supposed to give unconditional love and support and warmth, and instead, they've been the exact opposite. They were the daily tormenters, and every one of those kids had to watch their siblings treated in that fashion," said Pier Hess Graf, the Lebanon County District Attorney.

"My wife called, and my neighbor called on them," said Jerry Getz, who lives next door to the Duncan's home.

Many people asked: How come the children weren't removed from the home? Child advocates say it's not that simple.

"It is a very complex system," said Jon Rubin, deputy secretary for the PA Office of Children, Youth, and Families. "Our children youth case workers do not have authority to remove a child from a home or keep a child from a home. That's kidnapping."

When families refuse access to their homes, Rubin says the only real resource workers have is to file a court order. Though, that is typically a last resort. Rubin says caseworkers will not file petitions of the court to question a child outside of the home as that can be traumatic for the child.

"Can families hide what they're doing?" asked Grace.

"Can a family fool us? It can happen," said Rubin. "Can they clean up before we come? Can we go out unannounced? Yes. Can we maintain a longer period of connection with the family? We can try do that. Ultimately, we only have limited authority."

"What kind of abuse or neglect would rise to the level of removal?" asked Grace.

"We do have tools we try to measure low-risk, moderate-risk, really we're looking for imminent danger to a child," explained Rubin.

Rubin says that could be severe sexual, physical, or mental abuse. There are 15 factors caseworkers look for when determining the risk of a child. The factors range from vulnerability of the child to past family violence.

According to PA's risk assessment model, investigative workers must acknowledge that the 'tools' are not foolproof. They are not intended to serve as a substitute for the workers' own judgment and opinion. A "high risk" situation may involve just one of the factors or a varying combination of all 15 factors. The presence of many high risk factors for an indicated report may require clear documentation of why emergency protective actions were not taken.

"Do people slip through the cracks?" Grace asked Erin Moyer, administrator for Lebanon County CYS.

"Our agency is only as good as the information provided," Moyer told FOX43.

Advocates say it is critical people provide as much information as possible when it comes to suspected abuse or neglect. 

"What might seem minor might amount to something major. Just report the things you're seeing because that is how ultimately things slip through the cracks," added Moyer.

"By calling us, we will go out and do an assessment... The response will be to what the allegations are," explained Rubin. "Our goal is really to strengthen families. It is not to take children away. That happens sometimes when necessary to protect the child. Our goal is to go out and help children."

In Pennsylvania, the Child Protective Services Law sets the parameters for child abuse investigations. It also defines which children may need general protective services or GPS or child protective services or CPS. 

According to the PA Child Welfare Resource Center, a majority of abuse and neglect reports involve non-serious injury or neglect, such as inadequate living conditions, truancy, inappropriate discipline, hygiene issues or more. These are examples of GPS cases. GPS assessments are conducted to identify the needs of families that may be impacting child safety and well-being. They will also help to identify resources that can help the family. Social work strategies are employed to engage families in determining their strengths and needs. There is no formal determination of whether certain incidents of child maltreatment occurred or the identification of perpetrators. Law enforcement are not involved in most GPS cases either.

With CPS cases, there is a heightened response. CPS investigations are similar in how police approach their investigations. They involve more urgent timeframes for response than GPS reports, are focused on determining if incidents of abuse have occurred, may result in perpetrators being identified and registered in the state’s ChildLine central registry, require specific notifications regarding the investigation and right to counsel, and may involve joint investigations with law enforcement and medical professionals. 

You can view a chart on the differences between CPS and GPS here.

According to the National Institute of Health, children younger than 3 are at the highest risk of abuse because they cannot articulate the abuse or neglect they're experiencing. There are signs and risk factors, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC defines.

According to the CDC, at least 1 in 7 children have experienced child abuse and/or neglect in the past year, and this is likely an underestimate. In 2019, 1,840 children died of abuse and neglect in the United States.

Children who live in poverty are more at risk. The CDC notes how experiencing poverty can place stress on families, which may increase the risk for child abuse and neglect. Rates of child abuse and neglect are 5 times higher for children in families with low socioeconomic status compared to children in families with higher socioeconomic status.

You can view the Child Protective Services Law here.'

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