Team 4 Investigates Children’s Agencies’ Response To Hitchhiking Kids
Paul Van Osdol Talks With Allegheny County CYF
JEANNETTE, Pa. — After four young children were found trying to hitch a ride on Route 130 in Jeannette, the local police station became their home for six hours and they told police that they were trying to get away from an allegedly abusive home.
Their foster parents — sisters Sharon and Shirley Baker — have been charged with endangering the welfare of children, but investigators also want to know why it took so long for child welfare agencies in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties to respond.
Team 4 investigator Paul Van Osdol learned that it’s the second time in recent weeks where caseworkers have been slow to respond to a child in desperate need of help.
When police found the four children on the side of the road Thursday — hungry, dehydrated and showing signs of abuse — they contacted the Westmoreland County Children’s Bureau first.
They said Westmoreland County told them that the kids were supervised by Allegheny County, which contracted their care to the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center.
Yet, police could not get anyone to come to Jeannette and care for the boys.
“The bottom line is we needed somebody up here immediately to help us,” Jeannette police Officer Justin Scalzo said. “We’re not equipped to care for kids of that age.”
Scalzo’s wife went to the station to change diapers and help feed the children.
“They were hungry. We needed diapers because one kid went to bathroom in his pants,” Scalzo said.
Six hours later, the children were picked up.
“We expect an immediate response to assure safety for our children,” said Becky Wong, of the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families.
“So, children should not be sitting in a police station for six hours?” Van Osdol asked Wong.
“Correct,” Wong said, adding that the situation is “totally unacceptable” to CYF.
Wong said her office is investigating and has blocked Three Rivers from placing foster children while the investigation continues.
Jeannette police said they had a similar problem with Allegheny County CYF two weeks ago, stemming from the case of a young woman allegedly held as a slave at a local home. Again, it took more than six hours for the girl to be placed in a new foster home.
“If you have two cases like this in a matter of weeks, doesn’t that indicate there might be some kind of problem here?” Van Osdol asked.
“It could be there’s a communications breakdown. I don’t think that happens that often, but it’s a possibility,” Wong said.
Wong said there have been problems with Three Rivers failing to turn in written reports of their visits to foster homes.
“Can you say whether they were making appropriate visits to this particular home (in Jeannette)?” Van Osdol asked.
“I can’t say for sure, because we don’t have written reports. But verbally, I think they were making the visits,” Wong said.
The Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center did not return calls for comment from WTAE Channel 4 Action News on Friday.
The Westmoreland County Children’s Bureau declined to say whether it’s doing its own investigation.
“It seemed like nobody wanted to send anybody out immediately to help us. They kept putting the burden on each other’s agency,” Scalzo said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare is also investigating Thursday’s incident in Jeannette.