Office of Child Advocate Needed to Protect Abused Children
All across our Commonwealth every year, we hear of the senseless deaths of young children at the hands of an abuser. More times than not, we are told that these are cases that have “fallen through the cracks.” That is a softer way of acknowledging that our child welfare system has failed them, but there is nothing soft or gentle about child abuse.
Whether it comes in the form of mental cruelty, neglect or a violent assault on a defenseless child, our society must provide sufficient protections for our most vulnerable citizens. And if our child protection system is not working properly, we need to fix it. Many solutions are being discussed by a task force convened by the governor.
For nearly 10 years, I have been attempting to get legislation passed in the General Assembly that would establish an Office of Child Advocate to ensure that child abuse cases that come to the attention of the state Department of Public Welfare (DPW), and the county children and youth offices under DPW, are fully investigated and proper interventions occur. These county offices need the tools to effectively perform their duties.
Under House Bill 2302, a statewide Office of Child Advocate would be created under the Office of Attorney General, having the power necessary to subpoena records and obtain the information necessary to properly investigate reported child abuse and to take the actions necessary to protect children. Child advocates, medical professionals and victim services providers from all across the Commonwealth have enthusiastically supported this legislation. More than 20 other states have such an office.
Some of the deficiencies in our child welfare system came to my attention soon after I took office in 2003. That is when I learned of the circumstances surrounding the beating death of 3-year-old Portia Bennett of Philadelphia. Despite volumes of information that should have provided the evidence necessary to protect Portia Bennett, the child welfare system failed her by not providing sufficient follow up to ensure she was safe.
Whether it is an agency’s requirement to “protect confidentiality” or an ineffective system for reporting, monitoring or making findings of abuse, the system needs an overhaul. A lack of funding does not appear to be an issue. Pennsylvania spends $1.04 billion annually on its children and youth departments. In my opinion, a child advocate, housed in the Office of Attorney General, will enhance the use of these funds. Additionally, by providing a child advocate, abuse cases, such as the Sandusky case, may be circumvented.
The Portia Bennett case and, more recently, the tragic death of 6-year-old Khalil Wimes of Philadelphia, generated public outrage when it was learned the cases were not properly investigated and their deaths may have been prevented. As of this writing, a 3-year-old Lancaster County girl, known only as Belle, is fighting for survival in Hershey Medical Center following a beating – allegedly at the hands of a foster parent. Child advocates and state and county child protective workers need additional tools to shield our children from harm.
Since the tragic death of Portia Bennett, at least 400 other young Pennsylvania abuse victims have died from their injuries, and many more suffer in silence. Until we take meaningful measures to protect children, the number of victims will continue to grow. I look forward to the report of the task force and am hopeful that a child advocate will be included in its recommendations. It is time to correct Pennsylvania’s child protective system.
State Representative Scott Petri
178th District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Donna Pinkham