As reports of child abuse rise throughout Pennsylvania and across the country, low staff and high turnover rates make providing social services to these children an ever-increasing challenge, according to state and local experts.
“I’ve never seen staffing as bad as it is right now,” said Brian Bornman, Executive Director of Pennsylvania Children and Youth or Child Welfare Services, who has worked with the state’s children and youth for 30 years.
Bornman attributed many of the staffing issues to low pay, high workloads and the stress of dealing with kids and families in traumatic situations.
Many empty slots are filled with recent college graduates looking to use a child welfare job as a stepping stone to further employment – often unprepared for the amount of cases they will be handed.
“You end up asking so much of the caseworkers that they are so overwhelmed,” Bornman said.
While turnover rates vary across the state, according to Bornman, he estimated it can range from 20% to 75% in certain counties.
In 2021, there were over 38,300 reports of child abuse in Pennsylvania, and just over 5,300 were substantiated, acccording to the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services 2021 Annual Report.
The report states that 58 children were killed due to child abuse and there were 136 near fatalities in 2021.
The report also highlights the rise of reported cases among rural areas in Pennsylvania by assessing the cases by the rate of reports per 1,000 children in each county.
“This approach takes into account different population sizes and allows for counties to be examined in comparable terms. Seventy-five percent of the state population under 18 years old lives in urban counties, and conversely, one quarter live in rural counties,” the report states. “The average substantiated rate increased in rural counties from 2.5 in 2020 to 2.7 in 2021, and in urban counties remained the same at 1.5.”
Child abuse in Lycoming County
Lycoming County reports 5.4 per 1,000 children abused, putting it in the highest bracket in the state. In 2021, the county reported 510 reports of child abuse, of which 124 were substantiated.
However, these high numbers may be deceptive, according to Matt Wood, Clinical Director with Lycoming County Children and Youth. Variations to what different counties classify as child abuse may skew the numbers, he said.
“I think if that number is trending upward, it’s because we’re capturing so much more of what we can label as abuse,” Wood said. “It’s just they used to be handled as what was called a general referral. Now they’re investigations.”
The change to the classification of abuse, according to Wood, such as drugs in the presence of a child, a gun in the toy box of a child or needles in the child’s crib, are now labeled as substantiated abuse cases which need to be investigated.
“I don’t think it’s any huge trend that’s flooding us,” Wood said.
Unlike many other counties across the state, Lycoming County’s Children and Youth Services department is fully staffed, according to Matt Salvatori, director of Lycoming County Children and Youth.
While the agency saw a decline in staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, Salvatori said this was primarily due to a number of retirements from long-time staffers. Since then, new staff were able to fill the vacancies, he said.
Wood and Salvatori agreed that caseworkers are no stranger to the struggle of doing their job under the constant eye of scrutiny. Prevention efforts are key, Salvatori said, but added more action should be made at the state level to fund and approve more proactive measures.
Lycoming County has been no stranger to high profile abuse cases, including the double homicide of two girls, Nicole Elisabeth, 6, and Jasmine Jean Snyder, 4, by their mother Marie Sue Snyder and her former girlfriend Echo Butler.
Snyder pleaded guilty on Oct. 31, to starving her two daughters in 2016 and 2017 and has agreed to testify against Butler should her case go to trial.
The children’s remains were not found until November, 2021, when concerns were raised about a third child in the home. It’s unclear how the girls’ absence went unnoticed for so long after their deaths or how much interaction children and youth had with the family over the years.
Salvatori declined to comment on the case.
In another case, the January, 2022, death of a 3-month-old infant in Montgomery prompted an investigation of Lycoming County Children and Youth’s handling of the case. The child’s 27-year-old mother Tallia Germa Charlebois was charged with manslaughter and endangering the welfare of a child after it was discovered the infant may have overdosed on fentanyl and there was evidence of drug abuse in the house, according to state police.
In March 2022, the state police filed a search warrant with county children and youth asking for the phones of caseworkers Crystal Minnier and Tammy Bradley.
Minnier was the assigned caseworker for Charlebois and her infant son, according to court documents.
According to the search warrant, while Minnier and Bradley had initially agreed to turn over the phones, they subsequently declined and “Minnier stated she accidentally dropped her phone the night before and then ran it over with her vehicle,” and Bradley’s phone “was recently ‘reset’ when it was updated,” according to the affidavit of probable cause for the warrant.
This investigation is still ongoing.
Salvitori and Wood declined to comment on any specific cases.
Is abuse really increasing?
While reports of child abuse have increased over the past few years, this does not mean that abuse rates have increased, according to Angela Liddle, CEO of Pa Family Support Alliance, a nonprofit that offers trainings to mandated reporters of child abuse in the state.
“I don’t really think abuse is rising that much, to tell you the truth,” Liddle told On the PULSE. “I think it’s a couple things at play. I think that when you look at it about 2015 when we enacted 22 amendments to the Child Protective Services law we increased the penalty for failing to report.”
An increase in education about what child abuse is, as well as changes to the child abuse protection laws, have increased the number of reports, according to Liddle.
This, in addition to a high turnover rate among children and youth agencies across the state, means that providing the best services to youth and families is “a really big area of concern.”
“You look at how little these folks are paid, the fact that they go into homes, that if there was a domestic disturbance and a call to police, they’d be showing up,” Liddle said. “You look at what they do for what they’re paid and how they’re treated … It’s pretty honorable work and it’s work that a lot of people would not have the heart or the stomach for.”