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New report offers statewide recommendations for protecting children from trafficking, sexual abuse

Penn State faculty with expertise in public health, nursing, sociology and criminology are working to better protect children from trafficking and sexual abuse. The researchers hope that gaining a better understanding of the complexities of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation will enable agencies across the state to help victims and prevent further crimes from occurring.

A study conducted by Sarah Font, assistant professor of sociology at Penn State; Sheridan Miyamoto, assistant professor of nursing and principal investigator at Penn State’s Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Telehealth Center; and Casey Pinto, assistant professor of public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine, examined more than 2,000 reports filed with Children and Youth Services (CYS) in 10 counties throughout the state in 2016 and 2017. The results were used to generate new recommendations on protecting children from abuse.

At first, the study focused on understanding the characteristics of sexual exploitation and abuse, then examined how CYS identifies and investigates cases. “However, statewide and nationally, most reports of child sexual abuse are unsubstantiated, meaning that CYS decides there is insufficient evidence to confirm that a child was abused,” Font said. “Our report, in part, focuses on how current policies and practices can be improved to support high-quality, thorough investigations.”

As a result, the researchers realigned the study to examine child welfare responses to sexual abuse and exploitation.

“Our recommendations advocate for the resources and oversight that would provide workers with better data, enhanced training, better mentoring and supervision, and enhanced access to forensic interviewers and medical providers that can contribute critical information to help make the best decision for children and families,” said Miyamoto.

In the report by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, the researchers share six key takeaways on how a coordinated statewide response could improve the child welfare system and enhance child protective services:

  • Look beyond fatal cases and victims in foster care: Focusing on rare cases where deaths occur can misrepresent the scope of the abuse.
  • Stop deleting data: For cases that are “unfounded,” “invalid” or “screened-out” without an investigation, counties are not required to retain records for more than one year. Deleting these records eliminates the opportunity to analyze patterns of abuse, view evidence and review findings from past allegations.
  • Standardize and streamline practices: Currently, each victim is assigned a separate report. This makes it difficult to ascertain whether a victim’s siblings are also at risk of abuse. Issuing a family-level report and implementing a centralized screening process would eliminate duplicate work and reduce inconsistencies.
  • Implement a comprehensive electronic management system.
  • Collaborate to improve response: Statewide shortages of qualified interviewers and medical evaluators may delay timely responses for victims. Coordinating with Child Advocacy Centers throughout the state could prevent abuse, treat offenders and support victims.
  • Invest in the workforce: The findings recommend evaluating hiring criteria, offering competitive salaries, providing skills-based training, and ensuring a balanced caseload to successfully recruit and retain qualified employees.

“This report highlights the need to protect our children’s future by improving recognition and substantiation of services related to the identification of child maltreatment,” said Pinto. “This can only be done through adequate funding for services and multi-level collaborations between CYS, law enforcement and medical first-responders.”

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