Photograph by Alan Wycheck
A Face-to-Face with the Carlisle attorney and senior partner of Abom & Kutulakis.
Jason Kutulakis drew a circle with eyes and a mouth and asked the little boy what was missing in this face. Grown-ups know there’s only one answer. It’s the nose, of course.
“The ears,” said the boy.
Just a reminder, Kutulakis knows now that kids see the world without adult encumbrances. Kutulakis was talking to the boy as part of his training for Child First Pennsylvania, the methodical child-abuse response system now being installed in counties statewide. As a founder and officer of the Pennsylvania Children and Youth Solicitors Association, Kutulakis helped bring Child First to Pennsylvania, starting in 2009.
With years of experience in juvenile justice and child-abuse cases, the Carlisle attorney and senior partner of Abom & Kutulakis was appointed to the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection, the task force created in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky alleged child sex abuse scandal.
How does Child First Pennsylvania work?
It trains first responders of suspected child abuse – law enforcement, prosecutors, child abuse caseworkers, solicitors and forensic interviewers. It brings those professional groups together in multidisciplinary teams. It trains them how to talk to kids. We train the forensic interviewer how to interview. And we train how to corroborate a kid’s statement so the case doesn’t go to court just based on that statement. We put the kid first throughout the process. We started all this before the Sandusky fiasco. We’ve trained 19 counties and about 120 professionals so far.
Does that mean that Pennsylvania had started moving in some good directions before the Sandusky case?
No. I think they were going in a very bad direction. Under the previous administration, a lot of things have morphed into not putting the child first. It’s become more family welfare, instead of child welfare. There’s nothing wrong with incorporating family into the process, but when you’re dealing with children, you absolutely have to put them on the pedestal, and then everything falls into place. Under the Corbett administration and the current Department of Public Welfare secretary, the priority is putting kids first, making sure that counties are prepared to do very good, concrete investigations.
Was that part of the problem, that things fell through the cracks time after time?
We know so little about the total picture, but based upon what I’ve seen, a lot of things went wrong. But out of horrible things, good things can come. Unfortunately, there are kids that have been victimized, but there are many people that have not forgotten those victims. It gets us to Sen. Kim Ward and House Speaker Sam Smith and the governor putting together this task force. They are all very worried about what happened and trying to figure out how to prevent this and ensure there’s confidence in the system. Every individual in the system, and I’ve met them all across the state, is there because they want to be. It’s tough work and doesn’t pay much. There’s no doubt they’re trying to do the best they can, but the system has things we can fix.
Such as what?
The Child Protective Services Law has been the target of the Band-Aid approach for a long time, with piecemeal changes. For 30 years, it’s been essentially the same animal. It needs to be updated. It has become reactionary instead of proactive. We focus on kids that have been victimized more than addressing things in the front end and talking about how to identify kids at risk. How do you put in services to prevent these things? Who is a mandated reporter? What are the consequences for failure to report? That was a big problem in the Sandusky case.
This is an opportunity to give back. We all believe that kids have to be our priority, and I’ve internalized that, so they become the pillars of our community that they’re supposed to [be].
How do you write all that into law?
Lots of states have done it. There are a lot of things we can do. Redefining child abuse. Redefining perpetrator. Keeping statistics in a better way. Here’s one easy fix. We define a perpetrator of child abuse as someone who has a relationship with a kid. So, if I see a 5-year-old on the street and get a crazy urge to punch him in the head, that’s clearly a criminal act. Horrible to do – that’s not child abuse. Because I’m not a member of the household, I’m not a teacher and I’m not in a caregiving role, it’s not child abuse. That doesn’t mean it won’t be prosecuted, but the ideal situation would be to ensure that services are in place for the child and the parent to deal with the situation. That’s an extreme example, but the ones that are common are somebody who’s involved with the family but not a caregiver. There are cases – I could make your head spin around like Beetlejuice. Mom’s paramour sexually assaults the child. A grandmother pimps out the granddaughter for crack. She’s not in a caregiving role, so it may not be child abuse.
There’s been so much focus on child sexual abuse. Should we focus just as much on physical and emotional abuse?
This is one of the things the task force is looking at. Do we need to redefine child abuse? From the task force perspective, everything’s on the table. From my perspective, no abuse is more or less significant whenever you’re abusing the most precious resource we have. We have to worry about all versions and flavors and varieties of abuse. Sexual abuse is the most offensive to the general public. Prosecuting child abuse – especially sexual abuse – the prosecutor has a very hard role because most people do not want to admit that human beings can do this to kids.
What changes have you seen since news broke about the Sandusky case?
There’s a ton of proposed legislation. Thank goodness the task force process put the brakes on that. Knee-jerk reactions are not good. There are a lot of very good proposed bills out there, and we want to make sure they all come together in a cohesive way.
What has kept you involved in this issue over the years?
This is an opportunity to give back. We all believe that kids have to be our priority, and I’ve internalized that, so they become the pillars of our community that they’re supposed to [be]. If we can’t help the most innocent, I’m not sure what that says about our society.
How can the task force impact Pennsylvania’s future?
There’s an opportunity with the Sandusky case, if we’re brave about it, to become the leader instead of the follower. We rank last in the states on admissibility of certain evidence in child-abuse cases. We’re not a leader in child abuse right now. The governor and Speaker Smith and Sen. Ward want to make Pennsylvania not only address what wrongs, if any, have occurred, but also make Pennsylvania proactive in protection of children and in child-abuse cases. That’s a monumental process.
How is the task force working together so far?
Great. Wonderful people from across the state. Dr. Cindy Christian from Philadelphia and Dr. Rachel Berger from Pittsburgh are wonderful pediatricians. There’s a great prosecutor from Blair County. There are some good things that will absolutely come out of this – I’m convinced.