Pittsburgh – Calls to the state's child abuse hotline soared right after the Penn State child sex abuse scandal broke and then started to drop back. But experts worry that the existing system may not be up to handling even normal demands.
In Pennsylvania, there are usually about 460 calls to a child abuse hotline per day, or 2,300 per five-day week, state Department Public Welfare spokeswoman Carey Miller said.
Calls jumped to almost 1,000 per day after the news of abuse allegations against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, she said. There were 4,832 calls for the week of Nov. 5-11. Then the number dropped to 2,866 the following week.
Yet the hotline, called ChildLine, already had staffing and technology problems even before the Penn State scandal, said Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Protect Our Children Committee.
"Are we properly training the people who investigate these calls?" Palm asked, noting the current surge may include people calling about old cases of abuse as well as current ones.
And she has another worry.
"Is part of the reason people are paying attention is, this is Penn State, versus this is child abuse," Palm asked.
Sandusky is accused of abusing eight boys, some on campus, over 15 years, allegations that were not immediately brought to the attention of authorities even though high-level people at Penn State apparently knew about them.
The scandal has resulted in the ousting of school President Graham Spanier and longtime head football coach Joe Paterno, and it has brought shame to one of college football's legendary programs. Athletic Director Tim Curley has been placed on administrative leave, and Vice President Gary Schultz, who was in charge of the university's police department, has stepped down.
Schultz and Curley are charged with lying to a grand jury and failing to report to police, and Sandusky is charged with child sex abuse. All maintain their innocence.
Paterno, major college football's winningest coach, has conceded he should have done more after hearing about allegations against Sandusky. Spanier has said he would have reported a crime if he had suspected one had been committed.
And while everyone seems to agree that more needs to be done to protect children, funding for caseworkers has been cut.
State aid for child welfare operations was slashed in this fiscal year by $45 million, or about 4 percent, leaving some counties to figure out how they can continue to meet state and federal mandates of protecting children as caseloads grow.
Some are considering putting off paperwork, which absorbs enormous amounts of time, and some are considering ending prevention programs, such as truancy prevention, said Brinda Carroll Penyak, deputy director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
"It's a very bad time for the counties, but that's not to say that counties aren't up to the task," Penyak said.
Each report of suspected abuse is supposed to be investigated by a caseworker, who is expected to file a report within 30 days. In some cases, medical or other experts are called in.
The Department of Public Welfare also is reviewing old files to see if previous complaints about Sandusky were made.
Miller, the Department Public Welfare spokeswoman, said some people aren't sure how to report child abuse.
"Sometimes people don't know, really, what to do," she said. "We do want people to know that if they suspect abuse, they can report it to ChildLine, and they can be anonymous when they report."
Miller also said anyone can report suspected abuse.
But Palm, of the Protect Our Children Committee, worries that some people who call the child abuse hotline may be disappointed.
"Pennsylvania has the narrowest definition of child abuse in the country," she said. "There are too many situations when they say to them, `This is not abuse.' It really doesn't set a good precedent."
Some of the spike in calls to the Pennsylvania hotline probably came from people who just needed information, Palm said, adding that a separate information line is a good idea.