Ten years after Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted on charges of child molestation, Pennsylvania is reeling from another sex abuse scandal. This time it is three adolescent girls who were removed from the home of their father who had sexually assaulted them for four years – only to have a child welfare agency return them to his home to be attacked again for another year. 

The case came to light after an agency called Turning Points for Children, which contracts with Philadelphia to monitor foster care cases, settled a lawsuit with the girls for $6 million. Carson Valley Children’s Aid, a residential facility where one of the girls had lived during the time she was away from her father’s home, also kicked in more than $4 million. City officials claimed to have no knowledge of the cases.

Returning children to their abusers

The story has led deservedly to outrage and speculation about how this happened. Philadelphia City Councilmember Cindy Bass says the fact that agencies do not report these types of lawsuits to public officials is a “huge red flag.” 

Others have pointed to the fact that the city has delegated these responsibilities to private agencies as the problem. The head of one child advocacy organization says high staff turnover is the reason for the mistakes. 

In fact, the reasons for the recommendations made by Turning Points (but ultimately signed off on by courts) are not difficult to discern. Federal and state policies prioritize family preservation and family reunification for nearly all children in the child welfare system, even in some cases of sexual abuse. 

Just like every other state in the country, Pennsylvania seeks to severely reduce the number of kids in foster care, apparently even regardless of the risks

Last year, Philadelphia established a Special Committee on Child Separations to review the local child welfare system. In introducing the committee, Councilman David Oh said: “Experts agree that when children are separated from their families, such separation can have irreparable effects. This committee will work to ensure that children are not improperly and illegally removed from families.” 

The announcement criticizes the “zeal” of child welfare agencies to be “child savers” and their failure to value “adequate parenting” over removal.

The committee includes provocateurs like Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, who argues for an end to mandatory reporting of child abuse

A broken, dangerous standard

But the Turning Points case should give pause to critics who say children are removed solely on the basis of family poverty, taken from loving and safe environments over minor and easily addressed concerns. The circumstances acknowledged before the reunification of the three girls – an unemployed and homeless father with pending charges for violent crimes – were not enough to initiate removal or prevent reunification.

In this case – as can be common in cases labeled as “neglect” – issues of poverty were the tip of the iceberg. Yet, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, caseworkers often lack the skills, time and incentives to dig deeper when investigating allegations of maltreatment and making decisions about where children can safely live. 

Even if the city had identified the sexual abuse of the girls earlier, they may have been reunified anyway. Based on our analysis of federal data, of children exiting foster care in 2019 who were removed due to sexual abuse, nearly half were reunified. 

Although there is no tracking of whether children are reunified with a nonoffending parent or returned to a home that includes their abuser, it is clear that several states pursue reunification between children and their sexually abusive parents. For example, some states bypass reunification efforts only after the child has been removed twice due to sexual abuse.

In Pennsylvania, where state law allows courts to waive family preservation and reunification requirements in cases of child sexual abuse, reunification efforts sometimes proceed anyway. 

In fact, Pennsylvania has a training protocol for how social workers should go about placing kids back with the family members who have sexually abused them. “Family Reunification and Case Closure in Child Sexual Abuse Cases,” published by the Pennsylvania Child Welfare Resource Center, includes provisions for overnight visits and seems to require other family members to supervise the abuser

There is advice about putting locks on bathroom and bedroom doors, as well as ensuring that the abuser remain clothed unless in the bathroom or his own bedroom. And then it notes: “If he needs to leave the bedroom during the night he should awaken his wife (girlfriend) and inform her of what he is doing.” What could go wrong? 

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center makes similar recommendations to states in its guidance for reunifying victims of child sex abuse with their families, including composing an “apology letter.” 

Don’t put children back into danger

In fact, the likelihood is that pressure to reduce the number of kids in care may actually be leading to more severe incidents of abuse and even a rise in child fatalities.

recent investigation by the Los Angeles Times and the University of California Los Angeles into one of those deaths found reason to be concerned about the child welfare agencies’ “less adversarial approach to parents … and a shift in focus away from the family’s weaknesses and toward its strengths.”

This kind of language is exactly the kind used in guidance on reunification with sexual abusers.

In perhaps the strangest development, the lawyer for the girls in the Philadelphia settlement was appointed to the Special Committee on Child Separations while he was in litigation with Turning Points. The attorney has argued that “99 out of a hundred parents want their kids back and they should get their kids back. But this dad should never get his kids back.”

Of course, there is no evidence that 99% of the kids in foster care would be safe if we just sent them back to live with their parents. In fact, studies have found that 20 to 40% of children who were reunified were reported for maltreatment again or returned to care. 

Pennsylvanians were outraged when it was revealed that two cherished institutions, Penn State and the Catholic Church, covered up and refused to take seriously the threat posed to children by sexual predators. Yet, in Pennsylvania and nationwide, the practice of keeping children with their abusers is not only relatively typical but celebrated – as long as those abusers are members of their own family.