"How'd You Get Hurt?" | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

"How'd You Get Hurt?"

Child abuse cases are increasing, but so are the cases of parents who believe false abuse accusations are used to remove special-education students from class

When your 12-year-old child is trying to jump out of the car on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, there's bound to be a struggle.

And when that 12-year-old child -- who has multiple disabilities -- explains his bruises the next day in school by saying "My father hit me," you may find yourself being investigated for child abuse.

In early fall 2002, Barb and Charlie Tucker* took their 12-year-old son Pat and his two sisters from Mount Lebanon to New Jersey to visit family. On the way back they stopped at a rest area to check Pat's blood sugar level.

Pat's diabetes is perhaps the least of his difficulties. His other diagnoses include depression, anxiety, high-functioning autism and oppositional-defiance disorder.

"There's no medication" for that last disorder, his mother Barb says, "unless you sedate the kid. So you build contingency programs, behavior modification, reinforcement schedules, just to get them to get up and get dressed in the morning."

Pat is sometimes destructive; he's broken their home's glass doors "many times," Barb says, and he once pulled down his sister's aquarium.

At the Turnpike rest stop, Pat threw his diabetes testing equipment into the parking lot. Another car almost ran it over, and Barb yelled at him. They gave up on the testing -- Pat had snacks in the car should his blood-sugar level get too low.

Then Pat tried to run away. His father, Charlie, held him down in the back seat. "I thought it was under control, so I took off," Barb says. "We're driving and we're in a tunnel. I hear things are really getting crazy back there. Pat is trying to open the door." Both girls are screaming and crying. Charlie is upset too.

"Soon as I can, I pull over" -- just outside the tunnel beside a steep hill, Barb says. The couple grabbed Pat. Barb says she was punched, stomped, and kicked before Pat escaped up the hill.

Pat and his father were "both really upset because there had been this really big struggle," Barb says. "Pat got hit a couple of times. All of a sudden these two men" -- PennDOT workers -- "came out of nowhere with orange hard hats. Pat's hitting me with a thorny branch and these guys say, ‘You gotta get off this hill. It's loaded with copperheads and rattlesnakes.'"

Pat went to school the next day with bruises on his cheek and chin, and told a teacher his version of the story. The parents were called in.

"They know us real well -- we're there all the time," Barb says. "He's been such a difficult child. He came out of me pissed off at the world."

Pat was hospitalized "out of control" for several months at age 7 -- the first of about 14 hospitalizations. Sometimes the Tuckers have called Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic's mobile crisis unit, CACTIS, when Pat becomes too aggressive. CACTIS offers phone counseling and on-the-spot help. "They've gone for Pat in the woods down the road," says Barb. "They're what folks like us need. They're wonderful. And sometimes while they're mobilizing I've got to call the police."

She has seen the police take Pat away in plastic cuffs. They called the police at least eight times in 2002. "It kills me to do it," says Barb. "He would be banging me against the wall, on the door."

Regardless of the family's situation, the school explained, by law teachers must report suspicious injuries to Childline, the state's child-abuse hotline.

The couple had already been reported to -- or threatened with -- Childline twice before: once when Pat told a group therapy session in a psychiatric hospital that his parents hit him (a charge easily dismissed) and once when a social-services agency blamed the couple for Pat's high blood-sugar level.

After the school's Childline call, "I was freaking out," Barb says. "They could take Pat away. They could take all of the kids away."

So the Tuckers were reported, and the investigation began.

Increasingly, say parents of children in special education at Mount Lebanon and several other local school districts, they are being "Childlined" on charges later ruled "unfounded" by the investigating agency -- Allegheny County's Children, Youth and Families office (CYF). (Mount Lebanon school officials did not return calls for comment on the issue.)

Of course, reporting and investigating actual abuse is more than necessary. At best, these parents believe, such allegations are made because the cultural push to protect children sometimes means making the worst assumptions about parents.

"The teacher is under a mandate," says CYF spokesperson Marge Lubawy. "If there is the slightest suspicion...they have to report. If we ignore that, and there is something to prove there is abuse there, we are at fault."

Barb Tucker wishes mere suspicion didn't put her at fault so quickly. "You pray for that middle ground," she says. "You pray for that gray. It's not black and white. It's sad."

At worst, conjecture these parents and the lawyers who represent them, school districts are using Childline reports to push kids in special education out of regular classrooms or out of the district altogether. After all, with their need for personal attention and special equipment, these are the students a district finds hardest to control, educate and fund.

In well-off districts like Mount Lebanon, such parents form support groups and find their situations are not unique. These parents often have the resources to agitate for their rights to a "free, appropriate public education" in "the least restrictive environment," as federal law mandates -- and to bring their cases to public attention. However, lawyers for parents of special-ed kids across the state report that parents in poorer districts are more often "Childlined" while pressing for their children's needs. Such cases are not confined to any one district.

In 2002, the most recent year the state has compiled statistics, there were 1,703 suspected cases of child abuse in Allegheny County. Less than a fifth -- 307 -- were found to be "substantiated," according to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare's "Child Abuse Annual Report." Childline reports statewide were up 6 percent from 2001, to 24,408. Substantiated reports were also up to 5,057, although the portion substantiated in 2002 (21 percent) was no greater than in 2001.

CYF officials will not talk about individual cases. And neither the state nor the county CYF office tracks how many children in these cases are special-ed students.

School officials are the No. 1 source of the state's Childline reports, and have been for the past 10 years. Teachers are among those the state deems "mandated reporters," people such as nurses, police officers, doctors and clergy presumed best qualified to spot suspected child abuse -- as opposed to, say, a bruise from a playground tumble. By law they must report their suspicions to Childline.

Since 1993, school officials account for the highest number of mandated-reporter calls -- more than a third of the annual total. Of course, teachers see kids more often than other adults see them -- sometimes more even than their parents. School reports also resulted in the third-highest number of children removed from homes statewide in 2002 -- 1,027 -- after reports from hospitals and other social service agencies.

While the greatest number of child abuse reports came from schools statewide in 2002 (5,599), just 686 (12.3 percent) of them were substantiated. Only anonymous tips were a less reliable indicator of actual child abuse than school officials' reports, with 7.3 percent substantiated.

Dr. Kay Cupples, director of the Pittsburgh school district's Program for Students with Exceptionalities, says city school officials use Childline "maybe a couple" of times each year. Pittsburgh doesn't keep statistics, but Cupples estimates that the number of Childline cases involving special-education students "might be a little higher" than half.

In his decade with the district, most Childline cases have been unfounded, but there are always exceptions -- and mandated reporting is a good law, he says.

"In the last particular case" -- alleged sexual abuse, reported by the district to Childline earlier this month -- "the child was extremely explicit about what his mother was doing after school. Typically, kids do skew stories and take things out of context, but when things are specific...we have to report them."

Also, he points out, parents sometimes call Childline on teachers and other school officials when their child brings an accusation home: "Ninety percent of the time it's unfounded. But is it a trauma for it to happen to our teachers? Absolutely. I have had a number of teachers who have been devastated" by accusations. "Still not over it, even though nothing happened."

City teachers receive no extra training for assessing the claims of kids in special education, but they are trained to look for signs of child abuse. "What we try to do is make sure the principal...makes the final decision," says Cupples. "It tends to be a team decision."

Judges make the final final decision in cases of child abuse based on CYF's investigation, explains CYF's Marge Lubawy. "If a child shows any sign of injury they would probably take it to the judge," she says of CYF caseworkers. "If there is an injury in a child and there is any kind of question, I'd think we'd want to err on the side of the child."

At CYF, new caseworkers receive eight weeks of training and attend periodic seminars during their first year on the job. "There is no specific training session dealing directly with kids with special needs or multiple needs," Lubawy says.New caseworkers "get directed towards resources for kids with special needs." They also encounter kids with disabilities in hypothetical cases during training, she adds.

One former CYF caseworker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said schools were the primary source of allegations she was called to investigate. She estimates that 70 percent of her investigations involved special-ed students (sometimes called kids with "special needs").

Was she trained specifically to assess allegations involving kids with disabilities? "No -- we were trained on different cultures more than on special needs."

If a kid had a bruise that wasn't caused by abuse, or made a comment that turned out to be false, schools resisted correcting their initial impression of the situation, she adds -- especially if the child had a psychological disability. "Sometimes [the child] had to explain to four different people. They have to answer the question eight or nine times.

"Their parents have to be [to blame]," the school assumes -- "especially in an economically limited area."

Her own assumption -- that wealthy parents had the resources to deal better with their children's special needs -- was borne out by her experience, the caseworker says. "I couldn't ever believe some of the families I had to deal with," she says of her visits to homes in wealthy neighborhoods. "I'd walk in and I couldn't believe something happened, the way the parents treated the child. You get a feeling there's no way something could have happened here."

When conducting her investigations, "I tried to talk to the kid first about what was happening at home. A lot of times [the kids] would say, ‘I'm sorry, that didn't really happen.' They wanted to get the teacher impressed with them."

And there are certain other things she discovered during her time at CYF: Some school districts Childlined kids a lot, others not at all. "There are certain school districts -- I can't tell who they are -- who just didn't want to have those kids in their school districts," she volunteers. "They'd call [Childline] on the parents repeatedly. They just didn't want to have those kids there. They wanted the kids to be hidden. I guess they were some of the wealthier districts. That's all I can say."

In the eyes of some school officials, the parents were the first and only source of anything potentially wrong in the child's life, concludes the caseworker.

"When you talk to parents...you always get one side of the story...and you only get their side of the story," says Dr. Janet Squires. Squires is chief of the Child Advocacy Center at Children's Hospital in Oakland, which works with CYF and the police to investigate alleged child sexual abuse and helps hospital personnel assess other child-abuse issues.

"Unfounded doesn't mean innocent," Squires points out. "It doesn't mean abuse didn't occur" -- it only means the incident didn't meet the legal definition of child abuse. "Do I think those [parents] are abusers? No. But I think those are injuries and something needs to be done" to get parents extra help with their children.

Squires has been in Pittsburgh less than a year; she spent the previous 14 years as director of general pediatrics at Dallas Children's Hospital, where she saw many child-abuse cases. Pennsylvania has a higher threshold than most states for what constitutes abuse in legal terms, she says, and also separates the reporting of abuse and neglect, which skews Commonwealth statistics. Where most cases are unfounded in Pennsylvania, the opposite is true in other states.

Pennsylvania's "Child Protective Services Law" details five kinds of abuse: "non-accidental serious physical injury"; "non-accidental serious mental injury"; "sexual abuse or exploitation"; "serious physical neglect"; and placing a child in "imminent risk" of any of the above. It provides exceptions for "environmental" factors beyond caretakers' control and for treatments dictated by the practices of "a recognized church or religious denomination," apart from those that threaten the child's life or long-term health.

According to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect, Pennsylvania's child victimization rate of eight per thousand in 2002 is a third lower than the national average, calculated the previous year.

"In my experience working with this system in another city, I honestly don't think a lot of mistakes are made," says Squires. "I think it's a good safety net."

CYF, acting as the expert, neutral investigator, protects everyone's interests, she believes. "Teachers are not investigators. It's a burden to put on the teacher. For all you know, when you see bruises on a kid it could be the teacher, it could be a coach, it could be the kid next door."

Concludes Squires: "If I had a child who is a special-needs child and somebody [Childlined] my child, I'd say I'm glad somebody cares enough about my child.

"But," she adds, "I'd assume that the system is competent" enough to come to the correct conclusion upon investigation.

Lawyers who defend parents in these cases make no such assumption. Peter Wright, a national expert in special-education law working from Virginia, sees child-abuse accusations most often in cases of children with autism whose classroom behavior is misinterpreted. He believes it's possible for teachers to follow the law while also talking directly with parents about the allegations, unless the abuse is so obvious it would jeopardize eventual prosecution.

At the other extreme, he notes, parents may be within their rights to take legal action against the school:

"If there is [Childline] reporting that is done for an improper reason, either [through] malice...or to gain leverage in a school situation, to get the parents to move out of the school district or to stop contesting the nature of the educational situation, there can be liability for the person making that report."

Lawyers across Pennsylvania, where each county has its own agency investigating Childline complaints, say unfounded abuse accusations against the parents of special-ed kids in their area are far from unique.

"Oh yes, it's a huge issue," says Judith Gran of the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia. "I believe it's a tactic that school districts have been using for the last several years."

Although it can't be proven, says Vivian Narehood, who practices in Lancaster, "many parents feel it's retaliatory" when child-abuse accusations are lodged. "They are parents who feel they have demanded more from the school" -- more than the school is willing to give.

Working from Carlisle, Phillip Drumheiser was a parent advocate for a decade, representing parents in "due process" disputes (quasi-legal challenges taken to the state Department of Education) with 75 school districts throughout central and eastern Pennsylvania. He became an attorney fighting the same battles last year.

"I tell all my clients, when we go to apply for due process, that they need to be prepared for being reported to Children and Youth or the police department" -- or to have a school district try to involuntarily commit their child to a psychiatric facility. "We all have due-process rights...but there's lots of ways to bring pressure on people not to do it. And if you do it, there are lots of ways to make you regret it."

Anita Wayne and Tish Ellison's two children, Jordan and Taylor, are brothers two years apart who have multiple disabilities. The couple, now adopting both kids, first had them as foster pre-schoolers.

Ellison calls Jordan "a very discouraged child [who thinks] nothing's going to work anyway" and says Taylor is "borderline retarded and autistic" who had no verbal skills or potty training at age 3 and half. Still, she found Taylor the more optimistic case. He gained those skills and made other strong adjustments to his new home. Both boys attached to the couple, "but with guards up," Ellison recalls.

A lifelong Mount Lebanon resident, Ellison still lives in the borough with Wayne. They made the pre-school placement decisions. But during grade school, the couple began to ask Mount Lebanon for special-ed services, such as certain therapies. They believe their requests precipitated the eventual call to Childline.

The Childline report followed a period in which Jordan's school began to use restraints on him more often, Ellison recalls. "Both of the boys have...temper tantrums that are beyond what the average child would experience. And Jordan had taken to running out of the classroom." When he was placed in restraints he would come home bruised, she says. "It was totally inappropriate. If a child is properly restrained it is very rare for him to have marks or bruises." The couple complained to the school.

A few days later Ellison was waiting for the school bus, but her kids didn't show up. "I got a call from ... CYF, advising me that they were taking the boys into custody, that they would not be returning here, that there were very serious allegations against Anita and myself. They claimed we had been hitting the boys with bricks, boards, I don't even remember what else."

She wonders how such allegations could be believed by anyone when both boys were leading very public lives -- on playgrounds and in church, being seen by therapists and multiple agencies who visited the household regularly. Nonetheless, an investigation was launched.

For the next year-and-a-half, the children passed through various private, residential institutions in the area. Not only did they lose contact with other kids living ordinary lives -- regular-ed students who, by example, can provide models of how to behave in class or in social situations -- but they fell behind academically as well.

"They were terrified," Ellison says. "The setback to these kids was inexpressible, Jordan in particular. Very little learning going on, almost non-stop restraints. How anybody determined grade levels, functioning or anything else" is a mystery, she concludes.

In Pennsylvania, foster parents are not usually allowed control over every aspect of their foster children's lives, including schooling; legal custody does not always follow physical custody. The courts may appoint a surrogate to handle the legal issues, such as educational placements and programs.

The couple took their case to court to hash out who had control of the kids' educational placement. But by the time the allegations were labeled "unfounded," about a year later, CYF "said the boys' issues were too serious for them to return home," Ellison says. "They wanted their behavior in order. I find it to be unreasonable. You remove children from everything they know and you expect them to act like little soldiers?"

Finally back in the district for the 2002-2003 school year, the children didn't misbehave as much but "their socialization stank," she says. They had lost any friends they'd made before the accusations took them from school, and had lost their coping mechanisms as well, "replaced by all this inappropriate stuff they'd been exposed to."

Last year the couple was Childlined again, on accusations from Taylor -- quickly recanted -- that he had been tripped by one of the parents, Ellison says. She seems to shrug it off as minor compared to the allegations that snatched the boys away earlier.

Today, says Wayne, Taylor is almost totally "mainstreamed" in fourth grade -- included in regular-ed classes. She calls the provisions of his Individualized Education Program merely "a safety net." Jordan, she says, is struggling with emotional issues in middle school, but is making progress.

"The teachers took advantage of our circumstances and the boys' circumstances to get rid of them in order not to educate these boys and kids like them," Wayne believes.

"It's never my intention to inconvenience this school district," Ellison adds. "It's just never my intention to sacrifice these children to their convenience either."

More than a year after the child-abuse accusations against Barb and Charlie Tucker were also deemed "unfounded," the couple have nothing but praise for the way their son Pat's case was handled by CYF. Their caseworker, Charlie reports, "couldn't wait to get this off our backs and reassure Barb" that nothing was wrong. The caseworker also took their history and family dynamic into account when judging the situation.

Charlie is left asking himself: "What should we have done differently? We've gotten much better at dealing with these situations and preventing them." He understands that Mount Lebanon teachers were just doing their duty, he says: "I actually don't have an issue with what happened there."

"I did," says Barb. She remains frustrated that her school district -- so much more familiar with them than the CYF caseworker -- didn't see the situation for what it was. And she worries that even unfounded reports will harm her family, even though by law such reports must be destroyed 16 months after the verdict.

Yet the more she thinks of ways to avoid Childline, the more she wonders how to avoid the situation opposite to her own -- guilty parents getting away with abuse. That's because she has experienced Childline from the other end: As a licensed social worker previously employed in residential treatment facilities and with outpatients, she's had to call Childline on people herself. In one case she Childlined one family several times, but their child still ended up dead as a result of abuse. "This is a horrible job for a social worker to be in, making these horrible judgments," she says.

Now 14 years old, Pat attends a private school with a partial hospitalization program -- education with therapy added -- "because Mount Lebanon couldn't handle him," Barb says. "We love Pat. People have been amazed at how we work as a team to work this out. Strong couples have broken up over this."

As Charlie recalls: "Sometimes Pat will say, 'Get me out of here. Get me to a residential treatment facility. Get me to another family.' I say, 'We're trying to get you to 18.'"

"I say, 'Pat, you have these kinds of behaviors,'" remembers Barb. "'With a foster family, I don't know what's going to happen.' I say to him, 'We're the best you've got.'"

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