A nearly 40 percent increase in the number of reported cases of child abuse in Pennsylvania is straining the resources of county district attorneys’ offices, with one prosecutor saying her staff is overwhelmed by the rising workload.
Prosecutors say they support a 2014 legislative overhaul of the state’s child abuse law, which, among other things, expanded the definition of child abuse and made more adults legally responsible for reporting suspected cases of it. But they’re having trouble keeping up with the resulting surge in abuse claims.
In Centre County, investigators handled more than twice as many abuse claims in 2015 as the year before.
“We’ve become absolutely crushed by the increase in numbers,” District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said.
Pennsylvania lawmakers approved about two dozen measures in response to the child sexual abuse scandal involving former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Advocates say the overhaul was badly needed to help Pennsylvania improve its response to child victims.
A report issued by the state Department of Human Services last week outlined the early impact of the changes.
In 2015, the first year the new laws were in effect, child welfare officials received 40,590 reports of suspected abuse — an increase of more than 11,000 cases from the year before, according to the report.
More than 4,200 abuse claims were substantiated, 863 more than in 2014, though the percentage of substantiated claims actually fell slightly amid the huge increase in total claims.
Prosecutors are especially burdened at the front end of the process as they sift through evidence and make a determination of criminal culpability, said Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
In Parks Miller’s office, an assistant prosecutor must devote hours each week to attending forensic interviews with children who say they were physically or sexually abused. She’s part of a new team approach to processing and investigating child abuse claims aimed at minimizing the impact on victims. The DA’s office used to get involved later in the process.
Parks Miller said she is fully supportive of the new model, but needs additional resources.
“I don’t know what’s more important than serving child victims and doing these cases at the high level they deserve,” she said, but “something has to give.”
In Berks County, District Attorney John Adams said his child abuse caseload more than doubled in a single year, from 816 reports in 2014 to 1,769 reports in 2015. The county’s on track to process well over 2,000 claims this year.
Despite the addition of two detectives funded by the county commissioners, “we are struggling to keep up,” said Adams, who faults state lawmakers for failing to appropriate more money to help county prosecutors’ offices cope with the surge.
“It was an unfunded mandate,” he said.
Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, said Pennsylvania is experiencing predictable growing pains with its new child abuse protections.
“I can understand how prosecutors are unhappy about the squeeze they are feeling,” she said.
At the same time, she said, the law is working as intended.
“I don’t want to paint a picture of doom and gloom because one particular discipline is struggling in a very real way with the aftereffect of this.”
District attorneys aren’t the only ones coping with the demands of the new law.
Earlier this year, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale reported that 42,000 calls to the state’s ChildLine child abuse reporting hotline went unanswered in 2015, or 22 percent of the total. The state has since taken steps to dramatically reduce the high rate of unanswered calls.