- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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TORN APART FAMILIES AREN’T LIMITED TO THE BORDER, June 22

The level of national outrage that pressured President Trump to end his policy of separating children from their parents at the border would suggest a society that values children and puts a premium on preserving families at any cost.

The sad truth is that the United States has multiple policies - particularly related to the criminal justice system and child protective services - that separate children from their parents on a daily basis.



According to Human Rights Watch the United States has “one of the highest rates of juvenile detention in the world.” Nearly 53,000 minors are incarcerated in the U.S. The majority are children of color. In Pennsylvania almost 3,000 minors are held in correction facilities.

For parents, it is not easy to maintain an active involvement in the life of an incarcerated child. A report from Vera Institute notes that juvenile justice facilities limit visitation length, number of visitors, and which family members are allowed to visit.

Incarceration is not the only time that the government removes a child from his or her family. On any given day there are nationally close to half a million children in the foster-care system. Of those, only 30 percent are in the care of a relative; the rest are separated from their family and other relatives. Philadelphia is slightly better; according to the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, of the 6,019 children in the city’s care, almost half were in foster care with a relative.

Recently a Philadelphia Family Court judge was reassigned after 26 families spoke up about having their children taken away from them without being allowed to present their case. As long as a single individual has the power to separate children from their families, the risk of this type of violation of children’s and parents’ rights remains.

Granted, this is not to suggest that foster care is inherently bad or that juveniles who commit crimes shouldn’t face consequences. But for too long, when a child or parent has done something wrong, the automatic response has been to separate the family.

Philadelphia has been making inroads in foster-care placement as well as incarceration of youth, which means policies to prioritize keeping families together work. Still, when it comes to the general well-being of children, we have a ways to go.

Philadelphia public schools are underfunded, the cost of raising a child far exceeds wages of low- and middle-income workers, and childhood hunger plagues the city. In North Philadelphia, childhood hunger has doubled, and among families where parents work 20 or more hours a week, more than tripled in the last decade, according to research at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.

The images and stories of migrant children wailing for their parents and being kept in chain-link cages have struck a powerful chord of outrage. It is time for that outrage to lead us to take a second look at our own practices, and consider how much this country truly values its own children and families.

__Philadelphia Inquirer

Online: https://bit.ly/2tvyeB6

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SHELTER PATROLS ARE NEIGHBORLY IMPROVEMENT, June 25

A constellation of circumstances can land a person on the streets and without a home. Sometimes untreated mental illness and substance abuse play a role. Those conditions do not simply affect individuals’ ability to care for themselves. They might also manifest in behaviors that disturb the civic peace.

The stories of communities that marginalize or displace homeless neighbors for this reason are many.

We prefer the humane, practical solutions lately devised by the agencies that care for these most vulnerable Erie residents. And that population is substantial - the city’s homeless count is estimated to be 1,400 at any given time.

Erie’s Upper Room daytime shelter, on the second floor of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, 1024 Peach St., and the nearby Mental Health Association of Northwestern Pennsylvania, 1101 Peach St., are two agencies that have contended with behavioral issues, as Erie Times-News reporter Kevin Flowers detailed.

As shelter director Cris Taylor said, some viewed the shelter as a drain on the community.

“We used to have police called here regularly,” he said.

But rather than let problems like fighting or littering escalate, the shelter and the Mental Health Association have taken steps to ensure the boundaries between their clients and the public are trouble-free. Staff patrol the surroundings, pick up litter and defuse conflict.

The monitors are men like Luis Rivera-Colon, 51. Once homeless, Rivera-Colon said he can relate to the experiences of those on the streets and wants to help them do better. But he also conveys expectations, as well as respect, to those he encounters in the streets around the shelter.

“We let them know who can help them, but we also let them know no fighting, no arguing, no smoking (marijuana) or drinking out in front of the shelter,” he said.

He and the other monitors wear yellow safety vests and are paid. A $3,000 Erie Community Foundation grant helps cover the Upper Room’s costs.

Police Chief Dan Spizarny has noticed the difference - not many recent calls there. That is “good for everyone,” he said.

“I love what they’re doing,” Mayor Joe Schember said. “I like to see organizations taking ownership for their own areas, to help make the entire community better.”

So much of the bracing change taking place in Erie right now is just that: residents, businesses and leaders owning their civic responsibilities and becoming agents of intentional change, rather than waiting for answers to be handed to them from somewhere else.

Caring for those on the margins is difficult, fraught work, but how we do it is one of the best measures of a community’s heart. This strategy - and city leaders’ embrace of it - scores high as responsible, inclusive and compassionate.

__Erie Times

Online: https://bit.ly/2lAjBIk

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JUDICIAL OVERRACH: STATE SUPEREME COURT UNDERCUTS GRAND JURY PROCESS, June 26

The state Supreme Court has finally explained its decision last week to delay the release of a grand jury’s report on the sexual abuse of children in six Catholic dioceses. In part, the court wants to give the law establishing grand juries the once-over.

It wants to review criticism the grand jury included about an unknown number of individuals, determine whether they had ample opportunity to defend themselves and, if it concludes their due-process rights were violated, presumably rule on whether those folks should be kept out of a report that’s now hundreds of pages long.

The court gave no timetable for vetting the report, and Supreme Court justices aren’t known for burning the midnight oil, so anguished victims who have long waited to tell their stories will just have to keep biding their time.

The court didn’t even promise to release what’s left of the report when it’s completed any slicing and dicing it deems necessary. This isn’t the kind of ruling that boosts public trust in the judiciary. But it is precisely the kind of ruling that emasculates grand juries.

The 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury spent about 22 months probing reports of child sexual abuse by priests in the Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Allentown, Erie, Harrisburg and Scranton dioceses. Earlier this month, as the report was about to be released, an unknown number of people filed secret motions with Cambria County President Judge Norman A. Krumenacker III and asked to give testimony to the grand jury in the hope of talking the panel out of criticizing them.

We still don’t know who they are. They could be priests. They might be church officials and civil authorities whom the grand jury believes should have done more to investigate reports of abuse going back decades. Grand juries can criticize even if they don’t indict, and the petitioners fear for their reputations.

Yet Judge Krumenacker, who supervised the grand jury, ruled against them, saying a person criticized in the report had the opportunity under state law to provide a written rebuttal. Neither in state statutes nor case law, he said, did he find support for the notion that anyone had a right to demand an audience with the grand jury. He noted that the question had come up in previous cases but without any change in the grand jury law.

But do the criticized individuals deserve more than the law allows? At least some of these parties appealed to the Supreme Court, which decided to bar release of the report while it reviews their claims. Its order withholding the report came last week, and the court issued an opinion Monday explaining its decision.

The Supreme Court’s caution might be warranted if the grand jury, made up of citizens, operated without oversight. However, as the Supreme Court noted, state law requires the supervising judge to accept a report only if he believes it reflects the evidence the grand jury received. Judge Krumenacker has given the report his approval, and he’s operated within the confines of the grand jury law. There’s no need for the Supreme Court to second-guess the grand jury and Judge Krumenacker, to do it under the veil of grand jury secrecy or to do it without a deadline.

Joe Grace, spokesman for state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, said those who sought the Supreme Court’s intervention are trying “to permanently suppress the voices of victims of widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.” To be sure, the Supreme Court does not normally interfere with grand juries in this way, and its action sets a bad precedent. If the court monkeys with the report, the public will be right to wonder whether the full story of child sex abuse in the six dioceses ever will be told.

__Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Online: https://bit.ly/2MtojTQ

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TIME TO SHELVE LIBRARY ADVOCACY? WE DON’T THINK SO, June 24

Six months after the York County Commissioners cut $300,000 from his budget, it seems the head of the local library system is ready to move on.

Since the vote last December, supporters regularly advocated for the York County Library System, urging the commissioners to reconsider the decision that forced libraries to cut back on operating hours, books and services.

Yet, system President Robert Lambert recently published a letter online thanking supporters for their advocacy - and essentially asking them to stop.

“Thank you for your passionate support of our York County Libraries and your local library during the last few months,” he wrote. “There is a time for advocacy and speaking your values, and there is a time for gratitude, appreciation and collaboration. Now is the time for the latter.

“We now have discontinued our advocacy campaign,” Lambert added, suggesting supporters instead thank Commissioners Susan Byrnes, Doug Hoke and Chris Reilly for their service.

We’re as grateful as any county resident for our commissioners’ public service, and we understand they have a tough job balancing competing interests.

But we also happen to believe our library system is a community asset worth fighting for, and now isn’t the time to stop.

Unless the county commissioners reconsider their support, the $300,000 loss in local funding could trigger a much more severe cut in state support next year.

In February, Lambert noted the York County Libraries System is a district system - which also serves Adams County - and that allows it to collect $1.6 million in state funding.

But in order to maintain district status, the system must keep libraries open 65 hours a week and spend $500,000 of its budget on books.

Because of the local funding cut, the York County system is not able to meet those conditions and is in danger of losing its district status and the $1.6 million that comes with it.

If something isn’t done soon, our local libraries could be in much worse shape next year, facing a nearly $2 million hole in their budget.

Lambert said the state gave the system a one-year waiver of the conditions, and he is hopeful that in that time, the commissioners will restore the funding.

“We are confident that the 2019 county budget review process that includes the library system and all community partners will be thorough and deliberate for all concerned,” he wrote in his letter posted on the system’s website.

We expect nothing less from our commissioners every year, yet that alone doesn’t make us optimistic.

After all, that same process resulted in a loss of funding that’s now jeopardizing what Lambert rightly calls “a jewel in our crown in York County.”

This isn’t the first time belt-tightening officials have turned to libraries to help balance budgets.

So let us repeat what we’ve said here before: Libraries are about more than books.

Among other roles, they serve as community centers for diverse populations, centers for the arts, forums for civil discourse and online hubs for researchers and job-hunters.

Perhaps we don’t have a clear read on the situation. There might very well be an ongoing behind-the-scenes conversation that justifies Lambert’s optimism.

But until we hear commissioners say, “We will fix this,” we’re not ready to close the book on advocacy.

__York Dispatch

Online: https://bit.ly/2K82CM6

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PENNSYLVANIA HAS FAILED ON GUARANTEEING CLEAN WATER. HERE’S HOW TO FIX IT, June 27

Among states, Pennsylvania stands nearly alone in making an explicit promise to its citizens that the Commonwealth will protect their access to clean air and clean water, and guarantee “the preservation of natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment.”

That unambiguous promise, enshrined in Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, further states that “Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

Yet, since that language was adopted in 1971, state lawmakers have been steadily backsliding on that promise in the most critical of areas: public access to clean and safe drinking water.

Water isn’t like any other publicly regulated utility. You can get along without natural gas or electricity. Yes, it’ll be rough. But it’s ultimately survivable - at least for a little while.

But you need clean water to live. The maximum time you can survive without water, which makes up 60 percent of your body, is a week.

After all, when scientists train their eyes on the cosmos to search for life, they’re not looking for power lines or Marcellus shale natural gas wells. They’re looking for evidence of liquid water, a critical building block of life.

But as PennLive’s Wallace McKelvey details in a harrowing but utterly necessary report, years of budget cuts have depleted the ranks of water inspectors at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, putting your safety, and that of your family, at risk.

And that, in turn, has led some experts to warn that it could be only a matter of time before the state faces a Flint, Michigan-scale public health emergency.

The numbers are shocking:

Between 2008 and 2012, state funding for the DEP was nearly halved, dropping from $229 million to $125 million. In recent years, that figure crept upward again to $148 million. Had the agency’s 2008 budget kept pace with inflation, however, it would now be $271 million.

During that drop, the DEP lost 750 inspectors, who are carrying an average inspection workload of 149 water systems each. A 2012 survey by the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators showed a national average of 67.

The increased workload has led to a reduction of in the number of inspections. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, inspectors completed 3,177 surveys in fiscal year 2009. By 2015, that number dropped to 1,847.

The same budget cuts that hit the inspection side also impacted enforcement. Currently, the DEP employs 68 attorneys who represent its various regulatory programs. Lawyers play an important role in crafting formal enforcement actions that must be defended in court.

Meanwhile, the number of violations that inspectors identified but were never resolved spiked from 4,298 to 7,922, even with fewer inspectors on the ground. In fiscal year 2017, state inspectors visited about 19 percent of the state’s water systems, well below the national average of 37 percent, McKelvey wrote.

“Now, we’re basically just limping along, trying to keep the program together with bubblegum and bailing wire,” David Hess, a former DEP secretary under ex-Gov. Tom Ridge, told McKelvey. “The question is: Where is that line? How far is too far?”

If there is any bright spot, it’s that the 2018-19 budget that Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law last week includes a $5.6 million funding increase for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

That money, in turn, would help underwrite the hiring of 33 new employees, including 17 trainee inspectors, as well as compliance specialists, engineers and geologists who are badly needed to fill the ranks of Pennsylvania’s drained drinking water program.

Those trainee hires, who would replace the aging, veteran inspectors who are moving toward retirement age, would eventually bring the DEP down to a more manageable workload of 100 to 125 water systems for each inspector.

That’s still higher than the ideal of 67 water systems. Like anything else, it’s a start.

But it’s still inexcusable. And it doesn’t have to be that way. The solution lies within lawmakers’ reach, if they are brave enough to do so.

It won’t take a tax hike. It won’t take a fee hike. All lawmakers have to do is reach for their own wallets.

Right now, Pennsylvania lawmakers contribute a scant 1 to 3 percent of their total salary, a base of $87,180 (for leaders, salaries can run $99,410 to $136,094) toward the total cost of their healthcare.

Private sector employees pay far more. And unlike the politicians who lead them, the average cubicle dweller doesn’t get lifetime health and prescription benefits for themselves, their spouses and their children up to age 26, upon leaving office.

The total cost of that Cadillac suite of benefits came to $825.5 million in 2017.

The DEP needs at least 85 more inspectors to reach its ideal complement of 67 water systems per-inspector. At an average cost of $40,000 per inspector, lawmakers would need cough up an extra $3.4 million a year.

That would barely make a dent in the luxury-model benefits they currently enjoy - and that most of their constituents can only dream about.

Or if that’s too much, the General Assembly could always dip into its surplus, which tipped the books at $95 million at the end of last year.

That might sting a bit. But there’s some shared pain there. And it would go a long way toward making sure that lawmakers fulfill the promise that only five others states (Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, and Rhode Island are the others) make to their citizens.

There is no more sacred a trust than the health and safety of the citizenry. It’s time for Harrisburg to live up to that trust.

__PennLive

Online: https://bit.ly/2KeSNft

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