State needs children’s ombudsman
By CATHLEEN PALM
It was heartening to read Erie Times-News reporter Ed Palattella’s column about the progress made and the challenges that remain to more effectively prevent and respond to child abuse in Erie County.
There is, however, value to offering a distinction between the county’s important efforts to monitor and improve the quality of services delivered at the local level through a staff position that will report directly to the head of the Erie County Office of Children and Youth with the effort to create an independent and impartial state-level children’s ombudsman.
This state effort would assure that children and families across the commonwealth — regardless of their ZIP code — have access to independent and impartial complaint resolution and monitoring of child-welfare decisions.
Pennsylvania children, youth and families benefit from child-welfare services delivered by public and private providers as part of a state-supervised and county-administered system that has many strengths. Unfortunately, too often it also does not function as it should or must to:
- Effectively assess and assure the safety of a child;
- Guard rights of parents, children, and alleged perpetrators;
- Respond to the calls of mandated child-abuse reporters who suspect abuse;
- Prevent the removal of a child from his/her home or other disruptions when placement is required; or
- Communicate with and share critical information with other public and private partners in the protection of children and youth.
Decisions made and public resources spent have a profound impact on the safety, liberty and custody of children and families.
Currently, all mechanisms to respond to child-welfare complaints or to report concerns about specific decisions for an individual child or a class of children exist within the Department of Public Welfare, the county agencies and their contractors.
This presents an obvious lack of objectivity and independence. Also, there is no obligation for transparency with regard to decision-making, nor any requirement to report to the public or the General Assembly.
Simply stated, there is no independent check and balance on the child-welfare system — a system that in 2009 intervened in the lives of more than 100,000 children, spending more than $1.5 billion in public resources to prevent, investigate and treat suspected child abuse. Under current law, even the state Auditor General’s Office is prohibited from accessing child-welfare files.
Independent and impartial review is exactly what is warranted as Erie County and the commonwealth seek to understand Erie County Children and Youth Services’ involvement with Aaron Noyer — the man alleged to have been reported for possible abuse of one child and later charged with assaulting and killing 2-year-old Elizabeth Neimeic.
Such a review and subsequent public reporting could detail CYS’ involvement with Noyer and outline the immediate employment decisions made about workers involved in any CYS-related case. It could also lead to recommending systemic improvements in policy, practice and work-force training and supervision.
Ultimately, children and the child-welfare system rely on the generosity, good will and public trust of citizens willing to report suspected child abuse, to foster and mentor children and to volunteer their services for the good of neglected and abused children.
By creating an independent state-level children’s ombudsman, Pennsylvania’s next governor and members of the General Assembly can strengthen the integrity and performance of the child-welfare system and enhance the public’s trust.
CATHLEEN PALM cofounded the Protect Our Children Committee in 2003 to advance amendments to the state Constitution so that victimized children could be permitted opportunities to offer court testimony by means other than face-to-face. POCC can be reached online at www.protectpachildren.org or by calling (610) 488-5059.