Inside CYS: Why It's All Too Common For Victims to Slip Through the Cracks

BELLEFONTE, PA - DECEMBER 13: Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky sits in a car while leaving the Centre County Courthouse, on December 13, 2011 in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Sandusky, who was charged with sexual abuse involving 10 boys he met through the Second Mile nonprofit organization, appeared briefly at today's preliminary hearing. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Disclaimer- the following is based on my experiences as a CYS employee outside of Pennsylvania from 2006-2007. Laws change over time and vary from state-to-state, and each county likely has their own methods and interpretations of certain guidelines. All hypothetical situations described are based off the procedures of a specific time and place, and cannot be applied to all CYS departments. -JFS

As I approached college graduation, I nixed my plans for grad school and decided to take a year or two before making any major commitment. I wanted. to make sure I got into a field where I loved going into work every day, and thought spending some time in the real world while doing some soul-searching would help me make an incredibly important life decision. Armed with bachelor degrees in psychology and sociology, I decided to find something in the human services field. This way I could at least do something where I would help others before I got on with the rest of my life.

Ultimately, I spent my first year out of college with a county job as a child assessment specialist. My job was to act as the initial investigator once the county's Child & Youth Services (CYS) decided to open a case of child abuse and neglect. What I learned that year could never be taught in a classroom. I became part of something that to this day I still am not sure I'm capable of completely wrapping my head around.

What happens when a call is made: There have been endless discussions about what would have happened if one of the several people involved in the Jerry Sandusky case had picked up the phone and called Children's Services. Here is some general insight on how the process works.

CYS has intake employees, who are responsible for answering the phones and typing up reports of the alleged abuse or neglect. Once they get off the phone, they do one of three things: alert a supervisor that a child is in immediate danger, type up a report and add it to the stack that will later be read by a supervisor, or screen out the report if there is no alleged abuse or neglect.

The first option is known as an "emergency." For example, a parent has a meth lab in the kitchen with an infant in the next room, or a child shows up at school with a broken arm claiming a parent caused the injury. If the child is in immediate danger, a supervisor will dispatch a social worker and a police officer to remove the child from harm's way. If they arrive and find that the child is safe, they will investigate and decide what further actions (if any) are necessary. If the child truly is in danger, they will be removed from their guardian's custody and placed in protective custody--sometimes a relative, but more typically a foster home. The perception seems to be that social workers can come and take your kids for slapping their hands. In reality, there must be substantial evidence that the child was exposed to a situation that could lead to a serious injury or death for a removal to occur.

If the report is not deemed an emergency, it is typically passed along to a supervisor who will decide whether or not to open a case. For instance, there could be a serious allegation, but without enough immediate proof to locate the child and intervene. Someone might call CYS and say that they heard a child screaming in the apartment next door or a teacher could tell a counselor that she doesn't think a student is ever fed at home. Unfortunately, social services are never funded like they should be, so if a child is in harm's way, it could take weeks or months before anyone even looks into it.

A report will sit on a supervisor's desk for one to two weeks (sometimes more) before they even review it. If the case is opened, it is then assigned to an assessment specialist (my former position). This will be one of 30-40 open cases for the assessment specialist, so it can take an additional two weeks or more before the employee is able to make it to see the child at home or at school. With such a heavy caseload, it will typically take a few more weeks before the assessment specialist can interview all involved parties. Once this is done, the overburdened employee will need to find the time to meet with their even more overburdened supervisor to pass along the information collected during the investigation so that the supervisor can make the decision of what should happen with the case.

Finally, if someone calls but they do not have any real allegations of abuse or neglect, the intake employee can just make a record of the call and it does not move forward. My two favorite (real!) examples of these came from a woman who called to report that her neighbor's children ran around their yard barefoot, and someone who called to report that their nephew told them he would not have his children baptized.

What Happens if a Call was Made in the 2001 Victim #2 Incident: If McQueary immediately called CYS in 2001, the course of action would have depended on his specific description of what he saw. If he reported that he saw a child in the process of being raped, and stated that what he definitely saw a rape occurring, then a social worker and a police officer would have immediately located the child and start the investigation. If he called that night and said he thought he saw sexual abuse, but could not confirm it, the report would have been left for a supervisor for when they returned the following Monday. At best, the report would have been reviewed and a case would be opened three days after the incident. More than likely, the report would have sat there for three or four days before anyone was able to even review it. It also may have sat there for up to two or three weeks. If McQueary made the call and just stated that he saw an older man in the shower with a child, the intake employee would likely screen out the report and no further action would be taken. If either of the McQuearys or Paterno called the following day, either a report would have been sent for a supervisor to review, or the call would have simply been screened out. It would just depend on the detail that was provided by the caller. If a call is made from the witness, the more likely a case will be opened as compared with a call from anyone that is passing along a secondhand account. Either way, no immediate action would have been taken if a call was made the following day after the incident.

Other barriers to protecting children: The lack of resources that results in under-staffing are only one reason why children are, every day, left in harm's way. Another serious issue is that many false reports are made by angry neighbors or bitter exes looking to cause problems. Sadly, a majority of calls come from people that can't think of any other way to properly vent their anger towards someone. This results in someone interfering with an innocent family rather than helping children who are living in hellish conditions.

Sadly, false allegations are all too common. My supervisor once told me that 85% of the calls we receive on any given day will fall into that category, most coming from a parent looking in the middle of a custody battle. In the area where I worked, it was commonplace to call in and make terrible allegations whenever someone pissed you off. I quickly lost count of the times I investigated claims that the parents weren't feeding their children just to knock on their door as they were sitting down to a feast, with food overflowing from the cupboards and pantry. Unfortunately, this fraud seemed to give some people a sense of satisfaction. All it accomplishes is wasting time of the overworked caseworkers when they should be helping children in need.

Another barrier is that any child over the age of 11 is viewed as being capable of removing themselves from a dangerous situation. As we all now too well, this is far from the truth. This also means that anyone ages 11-17 must be taken at their word. If a child says they aren't being sexually abused, or mom and dad never leave them to fend for themselves for weeks at a time, then the case is closed. The unfortunate thing is that children will lie, and lie often. For one, they lie because they believe the threats of the accuser. More commonly, they lie because even if they are suffering horrendous abuse, they are too scared of the unknown. Many children will learn to internalize their pain and find a way to live with the abuse, rather than take their chance of living with a foster family where things could be even worse.

Political maneuvering will also hinder the productivity of CYS employees. During my tenure, the state determined that every county had to transition to a new software system. It quickly became obvious that some software developer with powerful friends was going to make a killing at the expense of innocent children. The new system was clunky, and much more time-consuming than the one already in use. The already overworked caseworkers would now have to spend at least twice the amount of time on administrative work for each of their cases.

Even more disturbing: all cases needed to be closed to start off fresh with the new system. Supervisors instructed everyone to sign off on cases regardless of findings. Many, many cases were closed stating that there was no abuse or neglect without anyone really even looking into it. A group of county commissioners from another county actually stood up to the state and explained why they would not be implementing the new system. Several employees from my county contacted our commissioners to describe the terrible consequences of the new system and to plead for them to do the same. No one even bothered to return any of the several emails and voicemails we left for them.

Unfortunately, the lack of resources will continue to hinder the efforts of CYS departments for some time. For some sad reason, protecting children is not a political issue that people will rally around. Following my work with CYS, I was on staff for a handful of political campaigns. Not once was anything remotely related to CYS even brought up. It seems almost unimaginable in today's political landscape that anyone would take a stand for abused and neglected children and call for more resources for a government function.

None of this is to say that CYS couldn't have helped uncover the allegations against Jerry Sandusky, or helped the children who allegedly suffered at his hands. However, the system is far from perfect, and just shows how easy it would have been for any one of them to slip through the cracks, even if someone was proactive in watching out for the warning signs.

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