Maxwell Schollenberger died alone in his bedroom in Lebanon County, starved to death. He was 12. Grace Packer was raped, strangled and dismembered in Montgomery County by the boyfriend of her foster mother. She died in 2016 at age 14. In York County, five children were removed from a "house of horrors." Their father pleaded no contest to abusing them.
Most of the children who die or nearly die in Pennsylvania of abuse and neglect aren't that old.
Most of them are under the age of 5, and many of their families were known to child welfare agencies before they died. It's not a surprise that communities are outraged when this happens. What kind of monster commits these acts? How do we stop this from happening to another child? And how did the child welfare system not see this?
Since Max's death, I've heard from so many people desperate to find the end point, the place where children are safe. It's just not clear how we get there, though. When so much attention falls on tragic cases, the public pushes for more caseworkers and more investigations by child welfare agencies. Legislators also step up to reform laws. In the wake of Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse case, Pennsylvania put significant changes into place.
It's just not clear that all of that helps the children whose lives are in danger. More child welfare investigators are hired, but children keep dying. More people are required to report signs of abuse and neglect, but is that helping or just adding to an overburdened child welfare system?
More children are removed from their homes to be placed in foster care, and that is its own tragedy, as the separation of families is devastating for young people.Pennsylvania spent $1.9 billion on child welfare in fiscal year 2018-19; $294 million of that was for investigating child abuse and neglect. Meanwhile, the majority of cases investigated in child welfare agencies involve neglect, often poor families having trouble making rent payments or buying groceries. Some child advocates argue that those poor families need money to hold things together, funds that now go to foster families to feed those same children and put them in day care.
Grace Packer was a foster child, adopted by a couple who had several other foster children. The father sexually abused her. When he went to jail, Grace's adopted mother and mother's boyfriend plotted her death. That's not the norm in foster care, by any means, but it's a red flag. Foster care should be a last resort, not an easy solution. Time and care should be taken to find the best foster parents. The more children we move into foster care, the less likely we'll have carefully vetted foster parents for those who need them most.
The Kansas City Star surveyed nearly 6,000 inmates in 12 states, and 25% of those who responded to the survey had been in the foster care system. When children die in Pennsylvania, the state requires that a report is written to review what happened, what clues might have been missed, how this terrible tragedy happened. Those reports are made public online, but they're heavily redacted.
It's the only window that state residents have into the child welfare system, and it's worrisome; everything else is closed to the public. With a system that spends so much money and carries the burden of keeping children safer, it seems like more information needs to be made available for public review, and courtrooms need to be open, as long as the identity of children can be protected.
Will that save more children? We won't know until it changes. We will never understand what happens in a courtroom to take children from their families if the judges, lawyers, advocates and families are the only ones allowed in the room.
How did we lose Max Schollenberger? He vanished into a bedroom, and very few people knew he was there. His biological mother, who hadn't see him for years, lacked the money to fight for custody. That's a common issue — parenting while poor. If anyone could have saved Max, it might have been her. How do we make sure that both parents remain in a child's life, unless the child is at some risk with one of them?
For all that we've done to change the laws, why isn't this the most basic, humane condition for the child?