How did a rule designed to protect innocent children be used to harass innocent parents?
The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare admits some parents have been investigated dozens of times for child abuse because of bogus, anonymous calls.
The arrest and conviction of former Penn State Football Coach Jerry Sandusky brought unprecedented awareness to child abuse, and a commitment to look closely at every claim.
But a couple in Luzerne County says someone is taking advantage of that awareness and commitment to investigate them, even though paperwork shows caseworkers investigating them, knew the claims were false.
In an Edwardsville neighborhood, about once a month, a police car or a social worker pulls up to the home of Jamie and Shannon Davison.
“It’s like I`m a criminal,” says Shannon Davison. “Like I`m being watched.”
Someone knocks at the door to tell the couple they`re under investigation because of a report of the sexual or physical abuse of one of their children.
“It feels like everybody`s staring at you, because they`re constantly knocking on your door and your neighbors know who it is,” says Shannon.
“They’re only doing their job, I understand that, but enough`s enough,” adds Jamie Davison.
Enough because the Davison’s records show caseworkers from the Luzerne County Department of Children and Youth Services first investigated them in 2007.
Since then, records show authorities investigated the couple 27 times.
Every single of those 27 investigations ended with the same one word conclusion about the abuse claims, “unfounded.”
“Obviously it’s harassment,” says Shannon Davison, who notes her husband has had to take costly days off from work to cooperate with these investigations. “Its ruining all of our lives, the kids can`t have a normal life.”
“There are people who use the system for their own personal gain,” said Beverly Makereth, the Director of the Children, Youth, and Families Services Division of Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare. “I`m not going to tell you it doesn`t happen because it does.”
Makereth admits bogus complaints bog down caseworkers, frighten parents, and confuse children.
But with so many children at risk across our state, Mackereth strongly supports the policy to investigate every report of child abuse, no matter who makes the claim, or how many times they make it.
“For us to not err on the side of the child, can be the worst possible scenario,” says Makereth.
When we asked Jamie Davison if he knew who is making the anonymous calls claiming abuse he responded, “Yeah, I have a pretty good idea whose doing it. You just can`t prove it.”
The Davisons tried to file harassment charges against the person they believe triggered the 27 investigations.
But they could never prove anything, since most of the complaints went to the state’s child abuse hotline, which guarantees callers anonymity.
It’s frustrating to the Davisons as one recent police report shows a Luzerne County Children and Youth case worker, …”fully aware of the false allegations.”
Another police report shows the same case worker claiming, “…allegations were false, and no investigation is required.”
Still, the calls claiming abuse continue, and investigators continue to ask questions of the Davisons and their children.
“There`s no reason whatsoever to drag a child into this,” said Jamie Davison.
His wife Shannon calls the barrage of investigations paralyzing.
“When my five year old calls me in the bathroom, I stand there and think, `Can I go in there?` or when she says, `Can I have a hug and kiss goodnight?` I say, `OK is this wrong?’”
Just before we arrived for this interview, Shannon Davison says a case worker told her to make time for a visit soon, because once again, someone reported one of their kids was abused.
“Somebody needs to step in and stop it,” Shannon Davison added.
Beverly Makereth says for now, caseworkers will continue to investigate each and every abuse claim.
But as a result of our investigation, Makereth says she’ll consider proposing more leeway for local Children and Youth Services agencies, in letting them decide whether or not to investigate after so many other probes turned up nothing.
In Luzerne County, Shannon and Jamie Davison hope the 27 investigations declared, unfounded, would be enough.