Child abuse comes in all different forms and places. Often it occurs where one would expect that children are sheltered and safe from harm. But abuse occurs in homes, foster care, school and even at church. Currently, an estimated 1,000 children are experiencing abuse in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

Nadeem Bezar, a Kline & Specter attorney who litigates child abuse cases, calls the problem “an epidemic that has spread not just across our Philadelphia area but across the country, across the world” and one that victimizes “the most vulnerable members of society.” He adds that because of the Internet, which some predators use to contact children, “Bad people have gotten better at being bad.”

Because abusers do not “wear signs saying ‘I’m an abuser,’” Bezar notes, foster agencies must do meticulous screening and careful follow-up visits to ensure that children are situated in safe environments.

Nevertheless, there are many instances of abuse. And in many of those cases, the consequences are serious, even fatal. Consider three recent reports in the news:
The first happened at Resurrection of Our Lord Parish in Northeast Philadelphia, where Sean McIlmail was abused by a serial pedophile priest starting when he was 11 years old. The abuse lasted until he was 14. It was more than a decade later that the accused priest, Father Robert Brennan, was to face criminal charges. But just before his trial was to begin, McIlmail, the key witness in the case, who had continued to suffer mentally over his victimization, died of a drug overdose. He was 26. But while the prosecutor was forced to drop the criminal charges, a lawsuit was filed in the civil courts charging not only Brennan but also the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Msgr. William Lynn, who allegedly transferred Brennan on several occasions to cover up the abuse. The case, handled by Kline & Specter attorneys Tom Kline and David Inscho, produced the largest-ever settlement against the archdiocese, though the actual amount was confidential.

Only months earlier, Bezar and attorney Emily Marks obtained a $5 million settlement with two child placement agencies over the death of a 10-year-old boy who was neglected to the point at which he died due to an intestinal blockage. The incident began when Ethan Okula’s foster mother was called by a nurse at his North Philadelphia school to report that he was vomiting and unable to walk. But four hours passed before the child was picked up and then, instead of being taken to a doctor or emergency room, he was taken home and placed on a couch. By the time 911 was called and an ambulance arrived, it was too late to save Ethan’s life. The lawsuit claimed that Northeast Treatment Centers and Turning Points for Children had failed to be sure the foster mother was aware of the child’s needs.

The third case involved the accidental shooting death of a four-year-old girl by her own father. Afterward, an investigation reportedly found that the child and six siblings lived in squalid conditions in their Philadelphia home. It revealed that a child welfare agency entrusted with the girl’s care had multiple warnings of poor conditions at her home. Seven children lived in the house with no running water or central heat, only the warmth they were able to get from space heaters and hair dryers. They were fed little, instead of a meal often forced to split two cans of soup among them and given one tablespoon of oatmeal each. The case produced a $7 million settlement against the agency.

But that settlement and many more like it are never enough to compensate the children, never enough to bring their lives back. Said Bezar, who also litigated the third case: “My heart breaks for what these children had to endure …”

Bezar and Marks said there are places for abused children to turn for help. On a recent radio program aired in Philadelphia, Bezar said: “If you’re listening, I would tell you that there is help out there for you. There is someone who can take care of you.” He advised that foster children who feel abused should call their social worker and, when they arrive, ask to talk to them privately. The same goes for the social workers, who he said should take children aside, whether in their car or at a local restaurant or another location apart from their foster parents and learn about the true nature of their environments.
He suggested abused children in Philadelphia call the city Department of Human Services hotline at 215-683-6100. Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Childline can be reached 24/7 at 800-923-0313.