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Investigation finds child abuse can be tough to prove in Pennsylvania

May 18, 2017 · 



They said their children have been abused, but they can’t get child welfare authorities to believe them.

Experts said this happens all too often and, in some cases, exposes children to harm and death.

Two twin girls, 3, seemed carefree as they played, but their mother said they and their 8-year-old brother are scarred by an abusive father.

Because of the nature of these allegations, Action News Investigates is not identifying the family.

“The fact that their father could do this. I mean, he’s a monster,” the mother said.
She said the girls have repeatedly told her that their father sexually abused them, but the mother isn’t the only one who has noticed.

A medical record showed the girls’ doctor filed an abuse complaint with the state ChildLine abuse registry, when one of the twins said the father touched her inappropriately.

“Not only was he touching her, she actually showed the pediatrician him acting out,” the mother said.

But the girls would not repeat the claim to a child abuse investigator, so no charges were filed.

“It’s a nightmare. My daughters are back to unsupervised visitations, and they’re coming home, claiming their father is still sexually assaulting them,” the mother said.
Action News Investigates obtained records showing more than 20 ChildLine complaints involving the three children were filed in the past year by doctors, therapists and the mother.

Her son testified under oath at a protection from abuse hearing that his father sexually assaulted him repeatedly.

The judge handling the PFA case acknowledged that “testimony was presented from which the court could find that father abused his children.”

But the judge said the father’s “denials of abuse were credible,” while the son’s testimony was “not credible.”

The boy’s mother said the child does not understand why.

“And he keeps saying, ‘Why doesn’t anybody believe me?’ He goes, ‘I wouldn’t make this stuff up,’” she said.

In court records, the father denied all abuse allegations. The father and his attorney declined to comment.

In another county, Children and Youth Services found a girl was mentally abused by her father.

According to court records, the father flicked the girl in the face and pulled her hair.

“My daughter asked, ‘Please, stop. Please, don’t ever do that again,’ and he said, ‘No, I’m not going to quit. Never ever will I quit,’” the girl’s mother said.

A psychiatrist endorsed the CYS abuse finding. When the father appealed, an administrative judge threw out the abuse finding, saying CYS failed to prove the child suffered chronic, long-term anxiety and reasonable fear of her father.

The mother is appealing that decision, saying the judge focused only on the flicking incident and ignored “ongoing evidence of abuse.”

The mother said it was not just one incident.

“This is a long history of dangerous behaviors towards my daughter,” she said.

In court, the father denied any abusive behavior. The father and his attorney refused to comment.

Child welfare experts said these cases showed how difficult it can be to prove child abuse.

Helen Cahalane runs the child welfare training program at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Instances of alleged child abuse and neglect are very complicated, extremely complicated,” she said.

Clarence Johnson said that’s because sometimes it’s not true.

No criminal abuse charges were filed against him, but civil court records showed the Westmoreland Children’s Bureau found he abused one child who allegedly had ‘bruising on the lower back and buttocks.’

In another abuse allegation, the children’s bureau said he threatened a child with a kitchen knife.

Reporter Paul Van Osdol asked Johnson if he put a knife to his child’s throat.
“I didn’t, sir, not at all,” Johnson said.

Judge Tim Krieger agreed, calling the 5-year-old child’s testimony “neither credible nor reliable.”

As for the bruises, the judge said they were actually Mongolian spots, a kind of birth mark.

“It’s been the allegations of CYS, making false allegations against me, to keep me away from my kids,” Johnson said.

The children’s bureau refused to comment on Johnson’s case. But bureau director Shara Saveikis said that, in general, “a finding by the family court, that there is not clear and convincing evidence, does not lead to a reversal of the indicated abuse report,”
Dr. Rachel Berger, who heads the child advocacy center at Children’s Hospital, said Pennsylvania law makes it difficult to prove abuse.

“The children may die or nearly die, but as a state, for one reason or another, we don’t indicate these cases, so we’re not counting them as abuse,” she said.

The child welfare system may not count the 3-year-old twins as abuse victims, but their mother said they are suffering.

“The system has totally failed my children. They don’t get another chance. I can’t replace them,” she said.


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