(877) 525-JWYC (5992)

Guest editorial written by Dan Heit for a local newspaper.  A part of a coordinated effort to appeal for additional funding.

JusticeWorks YouthCare serves families within the child welfare system and youth on juvenile probation. We also operate alternative high schools for students with behavioral problems. Based in Pittsburgh, we work in 45 counties throughout Pennsylvania. Just as nurses, doctors, grocery clerks and delivery drivers do, our staff bravely risk their safety to provide much needed support to more than 10,000 individuals in 3,000 families daily.

Since the covid-19 crisis began, we have continued to counsel families in person in their homes, where possible — wearing masks and gloves, trying not to touch anything, and keeping a safe distance. We sanitize and wash before and after each visit. In many instances, interactions have shifted to telephone and Skype. Some counties have forbidden any in-person service, and many families are reluctant to have anyone, including our trusted family resource specialists, enter their residences. Even by phone, “no shows” are more common.

Because JusticeWorks is paid on a fee-for-service basis by county human service agencies, with state funds under Act 148, this abridged service delivery substantially reduces payments and threatens the company’s existence. We’ve no choice but to start laying off family resource specialists and cut salaries. Federal loans, even if awarded, will not sustain the organization if current conditions continue.

I hesitate to talk about this. Our situation is the new normal, and so many businesses and individuals have been caught unprepared for the dismemberment of the stuff of everyday life. However, should the infrastructure we have put in place to combat child abuse and neglect crumble, child abuse and neglect will proceed unchecked.

The General Assembly acted swiftly in enacting Senate Bill 751 after the governor’s stay-at-home order displaced in-school instruction to bolster school districts and private providers who operate charter and alternative schools. Pennsylvania law mandates, and our responsibility as a society dictates, that we enable children to grow up healthy and receive a moral and academic education which prepares them to be productive adults. We hope they can be happy, too.

The commonwealth cannot wait for the federal government to maintain these vital human services. The trauma of childhood neglect and abuse often precludes children from growing up to be self-sufficient. Victims are more likely to become alcoholic, drug addicted, criminals, homeless or unemployed and have less academic achievement, and are prone to a greater number of chronic illness. They also tend to produce their own children at younger ages, children at greater risk of being neglected or abused. Despite their suffering, these children grow up experiencing a dysfunctional model of parenting, leading to a generational cycle of abuse and neglect.

The child welfare system has “gatekeepers” trained to identify children who show signs of neglect or abuse. These mandated reporters — such as teachers, doctors, dentists, and other health care professionals — are obligated to report any suspicion of child abuse, which the state and county must investigate. If warranted, the family is court-ordered to be supervised by the child welfare department. Others in the community — babysitters, storekeepers, hairdressers, neighbors — may anonymously call ChildLine, 800-932-0313, to report abuse.

During difficult economic times, child neglect and abuse increases. When parents encounter hard times and can’t pay rent or feed their families, their children’s nutrition, hygiene and security are compromised. Sadly, too often parents’ inability to cope with stress results in their losing patience with their children and physically mistreating them.

The current pandemic has apocalypse written all over it. Pennsylvania reports a 50% decrease in ChildLine reports. With schools and other outlets closed, however, children are virtually imprisoned with their parents who may not have the financial or emotional resources to care for them. And, since children are not visible to mandated and voluntary reporters, neglect and abuse is occurring behind closed doors.

Once we let people out of their homes, an avalanche of child neglect and abuse will become visible. Pennsylvania has a treasure in the many community-based organizations, like JusticeWorks, with histories of caring for, educating and strengthening families and ameliorating the impact of childhood trauma. It is imperative that government modify its payment model to ensure their continuity so they retain the expertise and capacity to serve those in need when we emerge from this pandemic.