All Pennsylvanians should be troubled by the commonwealth’s approach to the Office of Child Advocate | Opinion

Anthony Simpson and Cathleen Palm, PennLive •
Pennsylvania Capitol Building

In July 2019 with significant celebration, Pennsylvania’s governor publicly signed an executive order (2019-05) aimed at prioritizing the protection of vulnerable children and youth.

Pennsylvania’s governor acted without the Pennsylvania General Assembly in declaring, “Our protective and oversight systems have been built to prioritize institutions over human beings.” He also assured that the commonwealth was ready “to dramatically shift these systems to first-and-foremost advocate, protect, and empower our most vulnerable citizens.”

With that executive order, Pennsylvania began to spend taxpayer dollars on an Office of Child Advocate (OCA) assuring it would “triage complaints regarding government services” particularly responsive to concerns that “may adversely affect the health, safety, or welfare of a child or children.”

By February 2020, Pennsylvania had hired its first Child Advocate and announced the office “can now focus more effort on the specific needs and support of” some of the commonwealth’s most vulnerable children and youth. The person tapped to be the Child Advocate would depart within just over a year apparently because the Advocate’s scope of duties, access to information and overall authority wasn’t clear.

Pennsylvania then hired a second Child Advocate, who remains on the job underscoring to county child welfare agencies and the Pennsylvania General Assembly that the office exists, in part, to advocate “for the rights, safety, and well-being of children.”

Six months ago, Gov. Josh Shapiro directly met with youth. Youth showed up, despite the potential emotional exhaustion and fear of judgement, to spotlight safety concerns, challenges in securing educational and health care services and the trauma that follows a child being removed from their families.

Whether you measure since the executive order took effect in 2019 or the six months since youth met with the Gov. Shapiro, it’s clear the commonwealth has fallen way short of the promise to urgently prioritize vulnerable children and youth.

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About the Expert

Katy Otto joined Juvenile Law Center in 2016. With a background in communications, development and government relations, she is responsible for the organization’s overall messaging strategy and implementation. She is passionate about youth justice, and committed to ensuring that the public learns about the challenges facing youth in the child welfare and justice systems.

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