Reports of suspected child abuse in Erie County on the rise
Erie County, Pennsylvania – On the morning of March 13, Erie County Detective Sgt. Joseph Spusta and a law enforcement colleague arrested two former Corry residents at their home in Warren.
Spusta charged Wendell T. Mulkey with homicide, alleging the 26-year-old repeatedly shook and squeezed his 2-month-old daughter, who died of abusive head trauma. Mulkey is in prison without bond. Spusta also arrested the infant’s mother, Miranda C. Fay, who remains jailed on two felony counts of child endangerment. Investigators say Fay, 21, failed to seek medical help for the baby after witnessing the suspected abuse the child suffered.
Spusta has been investigating local child abuse cases since 1998, and he’s well aware the numbers are sharply on the rise.
Reports of suspected child abuse made to the Erie County Office of Children and Youth soared 27 percent in 2014, up to 2,456 from 1,926 in 2013.
That trend has continued this year — suspected child abuse reports to OCY rose 40 percent in January compared with January 2014, and 25 percent in February compared with February 2014 — with officials believing the sustained spike coincides with a new state law that went into effect on Jan. 1, which expanded the definition of who is mandated to report suspected child abuse.
University and college staff, coroners, funeral directors and librarians in Pennsylvania, for example, are now required to report suspected child abuse, said Lana Rees, director of OCY, 154 W. Ninth St.
“If you have a legitimate suspicion of a child being abused, report it,” said Spusta, a law enforcement liaison between the District Attorney’s Office and the Bradley H. Foulk Children’s Advocacy Center of Erie County.
“Kids are often not in the position where they can report abuse themselves,” Spusta added. “But the person witnessing it, or suspecting it, can step up and break the cycle of abuse in that child’s life by getting the authorities involved.”
Michael Gaines, executive director of the Foulk Center, 1334 W. 38th St., said his organization handled about 250 cases of child abuse when it was founded in 2011.
The center currently handles between 300 and 400 cases annually.
Victims of child abuse are referred to the center by OCY, the District Attorney’s Office, or local law enforcement.
Child abuse prevention begins with a parent or guardian being able to handle stress and frustrations, among other things, Gaines added.
“People get on edge, something sets them off, and they go. If that’s a trigger, if a child won’t stop crying, let’s say, and you’re at your wit’s end, put the child down and walk away,” Gaines said. “You need to think about it before it happens and have a strategy, and not revert to a knee-jerk reaction. You need to have a constructive, positive way to deal with it, instead of resorting to instinct.”
Mothers of newborns cannot leave a local hospital without receiving a pamphlet on shaken baby syndrome and watching a short video on how to deal with a crying, fussing child, Saint Vincent Hospital officials said. Fathers of those newborns also are strongly encouraged to watch the video and read the pamphlet.
“Child abuse is more pervasive than people believe,” said Wayne Jones, D.O., Saint Vincent’s medical director of emergency medicine.
When a child arrives at Saint Vincent as a victim of suspected physical abuse, doctors and nurses look for a few things in their examination, Jones said. They check for any recurrent patterns for the same kind of injury, and question the parents or guardians to see if the nature of the injury is more abuse than accidental.
“We look for bruises in unusual areas, like the child’s back, or the back of their legs,” Jones said. “If we suspect abuse, we’re required to report it to OCY.”
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and the timing, according to local child protective services officials, could not be better when it comes to awareness.
In a four-day span this month, five people in Erie County were charged with child abuse in three separate cases, including the charges against Mulkey and Fay.
The United Way of Erie County on Wednesday is sponsoring a child abuse awareness event in downtown Erie’s Perry Square starting at 11 a.m.
Members of the county’s Child Abuse Prevention Task Force, a group of 31 agencies working to prevent child abuse, will be in attendance.
The event will include planting blue and silver pinwheels, a national awareness activity designed to bring communities together to recognize the continued need for child abuse prevention.
“There is nothing more important than celebrating our children and supporting their physical and emotional health and well-being,” said Kathleen Patterson, a Gannon University assistant professor and a coordinator of the local task force.
The new state child protective services law that went into effect Jan. 1 stems from the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse child molestation scandal out of Pennsylvania State University.
The law expanded the pool of professionals with frequent interaction with children who are now mandated to report suspected child abuse, a group that already included day-care providers, teachers, therapists, doctors and nurses, Rees said.
Rees added that the Erie Family Center for Child Development, 913 Payne Ave., offers classes and training to encourage proper parenting techniques to the general public.