A recent audit of Philadelphia’s child welfare system found significant flaws in the functioning of the child abuse hotline designed to receive the reports. This audit found excessive waiting times, unanswered calls and over 100,000 calls to the Department of Human Services that did not lead to the generation of reports or further investigations, and their content is undocumented. Auditor Eugene DePasquale cautioned that “any single one of those calls could have led to a life or death situation for a child.”

Yet as this hyperbole fuels the panic of child abuse, the reality is more complex.

Legislation passed in the aftermath of the Sandusky child abuse scandal at Penn State expanded the professions defined as "mandatory reporters" of suspected child abuse, under penalty of law, instituting required training for licensing.  Furthermore, any individual not designated as a mandatory reporter was now, in a somewhat Orwellian turn, defined a "permissive reporter." The result, as this audit made clear, was the creation of a system of massive reporting, yet one that lacks the funds or personnel to address these reports. The majority of the reports did not in fact involve children in imminent danger.

Philadelphia, which has the largest child welfare system in the state,  increasing rates of out-of-home placements of children and decreasing rates of discharge. It is currently the city with the second highest rate of placement in the nation. But are Philadelphia’s children safer? With removal rates higher than New York and Chicago, Philadelphia’s children are spending more time in institutions and foster families, now euphemized as “resource” families. Yet, as abundant evidence indicates, placement in foster care places children at risk. Furthermore, the most common reasons for removal of children in Philadelphia are parental drug abuse, the child’s behavioral problems, and inadequate housing.

With appropriate funding and resources, many of these children could be cared for in their homes or communities.
Expanding the definition of mandatory reporters and increasing the number of reports leads to a culture of suspicion. This further marginalizes disadvantaged families of color, who are disproportionately represented in all points of contact with child welfare services, to their detriment.  Poverty is all too often conflated with neglect. Even unsubstantiated reports can lead to further state intrusion into lives of poor families who are already subject to government surveillance as a condition for provision of basic social services. More reports shift much-needed resources from families who would truly benefit from services and intervention.

Overburdened case workers may fail to identify and protect the child who is being seriously abused and needs immediate intervention to protect his or her life, while slogging through piles of paperwork generated by spurious or unnecessary reports.

Child abuse is a tragedy, and should be prevented at all costs. Society has a duty to protect its most vulnerable, and we should all be committed to ensuring the well-being of Pennsylvania’s children. But populist responses to the moral outcry following the well-publicized Sandusky case do little to address the problem, while wreaking havoc on an already under-funded and over-stretched child welfare system. Perhaps one positive result of this audit may be to question the efficacy of our current reporting system -- and consider diverting resources to education, healthcare, and support for struggling families.

Mical Raz, MD, PhD is a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar at the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center and at the University of Pennsylvania.

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