HOLLIDAYSBURG - A statewide child abuse report says that Blair County Children, Youth and Families, the county's child welfare agency, investigated four near-fatalities of children in 2013, a high number in comparison with other Pennsylvania counties.
One child nearly starved to death because of neglect by his parents. Another child was accidentally hit in the head by a mother who was trying to punch the father as he was holding their 3-month-old boy and two youngsters overdosed on prescription medication while the mother was sleeping with her newborn.
Criminal charges were brought only in the case of the mother who struck the child. She pleaded to charges of endangering the welfare of a child and disorderly conduct, the report by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare states.
The child now is in the custody of the father while the mother is permitted supervised visits.
Area counties, including Blair, Cambria, Bedford, Clearfield, Centre and Huntingdon, recorded one child fatality.
That occurred in March 2013 when Kenneth Robert Ayers of Huntingdon shot and killed his 2-year-old son, Michael, when the child's mother brought the 2-year-old to the paternal grandparents' home for a supervised visit.
Ayers, being tracked by state police later that day, committed suicide.
Pennsylvania child welfare agencies and police were asked to investigate almost 27,000 reports of abuse in 2013 of which 3,425, or 13 percent, were substantiated.
But Gov. Tom Corbett in December and January signed 11 new laws focused on protection of children.
Those laws are beginning to take hold, and caseworkers and supervisors in county agencies are undergoing training and preparation for what they expect to be an onslaught of child abuse complaints.
Stacie Horvath, the newly appointed director of Blair County Children, Youth and Families, and Georgette Ayers, the assistant director, said last week that the new laws expand the definitions of child abuse, clarify who is a "perpetrator" and mandate that counties form multidisciplinary investigative teams, including representatives from law enforcement, agencies and others, to look into serious cases of abuse.
Reports of abuse to Pennsylvania's Childline, a 24-hour hotline operated by the state Department of Public Welfare - 800-932-0313 - increased after the Jerry Sandusky child abuse cases came to light and the former Penn State football coach was convicted of abusing children over a period of two decades.
Sandusky is serving a minimum of 30 years behind bars.
The number of reports, said Ayers, have not abated since Sandusky.
Now with the post-Sandusky spate of new laws, "Every county in the state is trying to get prepared," Horvath said.
The Blair County District Attorney's Office has received a $10,000 grant to oversee the formation of a multidisciplinary investigative team and to provide training throughout the community.
District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio has placed his first assistant, Jackie Bernard, in charge of that effort.
Bernard was part of the statewide Task Force on Child Protection that was formed in 2011 and which recommended the passage of the many new laws that were signed by Corbett.
She said that in the past police and Children, Youth and Families have worked together, but that will now become a more formalized process.
Training will be provided to caseworkers, police, victims' advocates, school administrators, teachers, volunteers, youth pastors, emergency medical technicians, emergency room employees and others on the front line of spotting child abuse.
The idea is to get children the help they need, whether it be mental health or family services.
Bernard said the meshing of systems is to help children despite what to the public may be subtle differences in the law.
For instance, child welfare investigations are civil, not criminal, in nature. Under the multidisciplinary approach, the agencies will be working with law enforcement.
Children, Youth and Families will be taking greater responsibility for investigating abuse coming from the schools, Bernard said. In the past school abuse was referred to law enforcement.
The multidisciplinary approach will also be exemplified in greater use of child advocacy centers to investigate sexual abuse of children.
The idea will be to get minimal facts about a case of reported abuse and after a review, take the youngster to a child advocacy center where, under the guidance of a professional interviewer, the child will tell his or her story.
Whoever needs to know what occurred - various agencies or police - can view the video of the interview. This will eliminate the child having to retell the story over and over again to various investigators, Bernard explained.
Authorities face issues
Last month Altoona police and child welfare were confronted with three instances in which parents and children were living in deplorable conditions and action had to be taken.
In one city apartment, police said, parents and four young children had no electricity, only one mattress, a broken refrigerator, trash and dirty clothes piled everywhere and a collapsed ceiling in the kitchen.
To police, it was a crime of endangering the welfare of children.
But, Horvath said, that a dirty home doesn't always mean the children are in danger.
"It could still be a good home," she said, explaining the parents may need to be trained in how to clean up the home.
However, she said that her agency has been confronted recently with homes in extremely poor condition with holes in the floor, frayed electrical wires and garbage.
It's been a bad summer with people facing tough economic conditions and, in some cases, with benefits like food stamps being cut back.
In a recent presentation of budget needs for the next fiscal year, Horvath and Ayers said the problems facing children and families are severe.
Their agency "continues to see an increase in the number of referrals regarding substance abuse by parents and caregivers; infants born drug addicted or drug exposed; poor parenting skills with the absence of protective capacities; parents having mental health disorders; ... poor home conditions that rise above the category of neglect into unsafe and deplorable conditions; lack of resources as a result of unemployment, underemployment," it was stated during the budget presentation.
With the intensity of the problems increasing and the new laws taking effect, Children, Youth and Families is projecting a major increase in the number of children and families that will require services this fiscal year, which began in July.
In the 2012-13 fiscal year. the agency took in 2,175 children from 1,374 families. That rose to 2,279 children from 1,500 families in the 2013-14.
This fiscal year the agency is projecting the intake of 2,800 children from 1,827 families.
The first responsibility of Children, Youth and Families is to make sure children are safe. That means the agency conducts hundreds of investigations every year into reports of child abuse, many involving sexual exploitation, with others focusing on neglect, physical or mental abuse.
The Department of Public Welfare annually publishes a Child Abuse Report.
The statistics show that in Pennsylvania last year the Childline registered 26,944 complaints, which was an increase of 280 from the year before. Investigations show more than 3,400 of those reports were substantiated.
The state report listed 38 child fatalities, up five from 2012, and 52 near-fatalities.
Near-fatalities in Blair
Blair County stood out when it came to the near-fatality category with four investigations being conducted in 2013.
To put that number in perspective, 21 counties had no fatalities or near-fatalities.
Only two counties in the state had more near-fatalities, Delaware County with five, and Philadelphia County with nine.
Allegheny County, with a population of 1.5 million people, had three.
The state's two largest counties, Philadelphia and Allegheny, recorded 11 and three fatalities, respectively.
Delaware County had one fatality.
Ayers explained that a near-fatality is a designation or determination by medical personnel, not something decided by a child welfare caseworker.
Children, Youth and Families has two supervisors and 10 caseworkers assigned to investigate complaints within 30- or 60-day periods.
Every fatality or near-fatality is reviewed by local and state multidisciplinary teams, Ayers said, the object being to determine if there is any way services can be improved.
In November 2012, Blair County authorities received a report of a "malnourished and starving" 2-year-old boy. The case was included in the 2013 figures because the investigation continued past Dec. 31.
The complaint stated the "mother does not feed the child, and he is so skinny it is sickening."
The child was found to be "fragile"and "in a skeletal state."
Caseworkers joined with two police officers in the investigation. It was found that the father was "in and out of prison" and that the mother was not feeding her son properly even though he had other well-nourished siblings.
The boy, 19 pounds, ate "voraciously" and gained 4 pounds in just a couple of days in the hospital.
He and his siblings were placed in foster care.
The boy remains in foster care and is receiving services through Head Start. The mother, who has been instructed on nutrition, visits with her children through Family Intervention Crisis Services.
The baby who was hit by an errant punch thrown by the mother suffered bleeding on the brain, which is why that case was classified as a near-fatality.
In June 2013, a 3-year-old boy and his 1-year-old sister got a hold of psychiatric medications while the mother was sleeping in the afternoon.
The state report said, "Sometime after noon the mother found both children unresponsive on the floor, surrounded by pills and empty prescription bottles."
The mother did not seek help immediately because she didn't want Children, Youth and Families involved, the report stated.
She bathed the children, hoping to revive them. She eventually put the kids in the car and proceeded toward the hospital but stopped on the way to call poison control. She was instructed to immediately call 911.
Children, Youth and Families was well-familiar with the family that included an abusive paramour.
The agency has put the mother in contact with several agencies, including Head Start, and referred the mother and her boyfriend to parenting classes and counseling.
Horvath and Ayers wanted to emphasize that the county agency has a goal of strengthening families, not breaking them up.
The goal is not to take kids away but to provide services families need, Horvath said.
There is a process called Family Group Decision-Making in which parents and extended family members sit down and figure out to resolve issues.
"Families know best," said Ayers," as she explained how the effort is made to develop plans to keep children safe.
"I think families try. They struggle every day," she said.
Horvath and Ayers advise people to call if they need help or to call the number "211" to seek help for a situation.