Commentary: Bucks case shows value of child-abuse reports

Overgrown weeds and grass cover Lee Kaplan's home on 428 Old Street Rd. in Feasterville, PA, where he was found to be living with 12 girls.

By Debra Schilling Wolfe

Thanks to a concerned neighbor, 12 children are a little bit safer. When something did not look quite right, a woman in Bucks County said something.

Her action triggered a response that resulted in the arrest of three adults, including the biological parents who "gifted" their then-14-year-old daughter to a man who subsequently impregnated her not once but twice. The now-18-year-old girl, her babies fathered by this man who considered her his "wife," and an additional nine girls suspected to be her younger siblings have ended their captivity and can begin the long process of healing.

We can credit this result, in large part, to the vast reforms that resulted from the Jerry Sandusky case, which not only improved reporting and investigation of child abuse but brought child maltreatment to the forefront. Anyone with a television, internet connection, or newspaper in hand became aware that child abuse can and should be reported and that there is a system that is charged with protecting children from maltreatment. It was a veritable public-awareness campaign.

New laws were passed in the commonwealth that refined the definition of child abuse, broadened who is mandated by law to report, required training in the recognition and reporting of child maltreatment by licensed professionals across Pennsylvania, and closed existing cracks in the system.

As a result, the child-welfare system has been flooded with increased reports of suspected abuse as professionals have increased their awareness and reporting. Many child-welfare agencies have struggled to respond to all the new cases, which have strained their staff and financial resources.

Pennsylvania did resist the temptation to mandate that all adults in the state report suspected abuse, instead focusing efforts on educating professionals and healing an already broken system. Research tells us that reports by professionals are found to be accurate at more than double the rate of those by the general public.

Due to the new laws, a workforce of individuals such as dentists, pharmacists, and even massage therapists has joined physicians, psychologists, nurses, and the like as society's watchful eyes on the well-being of children. But anyone who is not required to do so by law can also report suspected child abuse, as the concerned neighbor in Bucks County did. Her actions should inspire us all.

Remarkably, the United States is one of only a handful of nations that mandate the reporting of child abuse. Is it because child abuse is unique to our culture? Or is it something else? That "something else" may be a very sad statement on our society.

Under serious consideration during the wave of recent reforms in child-abuse reporting was a proposal that would have required average citizens to report suspected child abuse or face being charged with a crime. Some legislators wanted to charge non-reporters with a felony, believing that would serve as an impetus for citizens to report suspected child abuse that they would otherwise ignore.

Do we really need to mandate caring and compassion? If we suspect a child is being harmed, it should be a moral imperative to act on his or her behalf. Too often after a tragedy, we hear that neighbors or other adults "knew" that a child was being maltreated and that "someone" should have done something. We are the "someones." It is the responsibility of all of us to watch out for and protect society's most vulnerable. It is better that many people call to report than that no one do so.

Our child-welfare and law enforcement systems can only help if someone calls. But we also need to understand that the Constitution protects the rights of individuals and that officials cannot investigate allegations that don't rise to the legal definition of harm. As frustrating as that might be, those who have concerns about the welfare of children should makes those calls and be persistent. Offer as much information as you have. What might seem insignificant can actually make a difference.

It is not the burden of the caller to determine if the situation rises to the level of child abuse. Just make the call. One woman in Bucks County is glad she did. And so are 12 girls who are now out of harm's way.

In Pennsylvania, call ChildLine 24/7 to report suspected child abuse: 1-800-932-0313. More information can be found on the state-maintained website keepkidssafe.pa.gov.

Debra Schilling Wolfe is executive director of the Field Center for Children's Policy, Practice, and Research at the University of Pennsylvania. dwolfe@upenn.edu