Ten years ago this month, the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case rocked Pennsylvania. A decade later, one child abuse prevention advocate says there’s still more work to be done to protect children in the commonwealth.
Angela Liddle is president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, a Harrisburg-based organization that trains about 20,000 to 30,000 child welfare professionals and mandated reporters in Pennsylvania each year.
Liddle, who’s helmed the advocacy organization for more than a quarter-century, still remembers her initial thoughts after news of the Sandusky investigation became public on Nov. 5, 2011.
“Thank God it’s finally something of magnitude enough that people can’t ignore it,” Liddle thought at the time.
“It kicked everybody into action,” she told the Capital-Star. “it’s unfortunate that you need that to kick people into action.”
Since the Sandusky case, which ended the career of the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, and landed Sandusky in jail for 30 to 60 years, Pennsylvania has overhauled its mandatory reporter laws, amended child care clearance requirements for child care centers, group care homes and family child care homes, mandated public service posters for the state’s child abuse hotline in all public and non public schools in the commonwealth, and made several attempts at expanding the statute of limitations for victims of sexual assault.
Reports of child abuse in Pennsylvania have increased each year since the Sandusky case became a kind of shorthand for unchecked abuse.
In 2017, Pennsylvania received more child abuse reports than any other year on record, according to state data.
The number of reports dropped dramatically in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic-induced shutdowns, with the state recording a drop of more than 9,000 reports from 2019 levels. The drop in reports was accompanied by an increase in child abuse fatalities. In 2020, Pennsylvania recorded 73 substantiated child abuse fatalities compared to 51 a year prior.
“That’s not really surprising to me,” Liddle said, calling the COVID-19 pandemic “the perfect storm.”
Similar to how the Sandusky investigation called attention to child sex abuse, Liddle said she’d hoped the drop in reports in 2020 and the rise in child abuse fatalities would again rally Pennsylvanians to advocate for better protections and prevention measures.
“That should be moving people toward action,” Liddle said.
Learning from the Past
Reflecting on the decade since the investigation began, Liddle said she believes that collectively, Pennsylvania has learned a lot, and has made progress on better addressing child abuse.
“Have we learned from the Sandusky scandal? Absolutely,” Liddle told Capital-Star. “The first thing we learned is that people who look like very kind grandfathers and coaches can, in fact, be predators of children.
But the lessons learned weren’t only in our collective perceptions of what an abuser can look like.
“We learned that we needed to strengthen our child protective services laws, ” she concluded.
The myriad changes to Pennsylvania’s child protective services laws since the Sandusky case are “commendable strides,” Liddle said.
“Each and every one of those is a step in the right direction [and] does a lot to protect children,” Liddle said.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, who has led numerous legislative efforts to bolster rights for victims of sexual abuse in the General Assembly, did not return a request for comment.
Fueling Continued Progress
Despite the legislative progress made in the last 10 years, Liddle said “there’s a lot to be done yet” to better protect children in Pennsylvania.
“The reality is - there is not one solution to this overarching problem,” Liddle told the Capital-Star, adding that legislation alone won’t prevent abuse from happening.
Prevention, Liddle said, is the key to Pennsylvania’s continued progress.
Liddle believes that continued progress on the state’s effort to address child abuse will require a funding boost to its “underfunded” child protective services system and to local entities working to educate and train people on identifying and reporting child abuse.
“There has to be a lot more money infused into our system,” Liddle said. “We’ve put not nearly enough into prevention.”
Pennsylvania’s county-administered, state-supervised child welfare system requested more than $1.3 million in state funds for the 2021-22 fiscal year, an increase of more than $153 million from the previous year.
The state Department of Human Services’ budget reports note another $12.5 million for child abuse prevention and treatment from the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act sources for the current fiscal year.
In addition to funding for child welfare system, Pennsylvania allocated $1 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year to sexual assault prevention efforts.
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