Ex-DPW worker discusses 1998 Sandusky shower case
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In 1998, more than 13 years before Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexually assaulting 10 boys, Jerry Lauro of the state Department of Public Welfare was summoned to investigate a claim that the Penn State assistant football coach had sexually abused an 11-year-old boy he showered with in a locker room.
But after investigating, Mr. Lauro said he closed the case, lacking substantial evidence that Mr. Sandusky sexually abused the boy. Now, Mr. Sandusky has been charged in the very incident Mr. Lauro investigated.
"It didn't meet the criteria," Mr. Lauro said. "If I really thought there were any child abuse ... I definitely would have indicated it."
The DPW inquiry was started in the 1998 case because the boy was involved with The Second Mile, the charity Mr. Sandusky founded, which ran a DPW-licensed foster care agency and programs for at-risk youth.
Under Child Protective Services Law, social workers like Mr. Lauro have the power to "indicate" someone as a perpetrator of child sexual abuse. The process is independent of criminal prosecution and no charges are required for the person to be flagged as someone to be barred from work that puts him in contact with children. The determination is not made public but the status is made known to employers who perform criminal background checks on potential employees or volunteers.
For Mr. Sandusky, who retired a year after the 1998 incident, it would have meant he would have been barred from coaching youth football. It also would have jeopardized DPW licenses for Second Mile. Mr. Lauro said he would have worked with the organization to ensure that even children who weren't being served through the DPW-licensed foster care agency were protected.
"I'm sure the Second Mile program would have been notified if he was indicated," he said. "We wouldn't have wanted him to be around children if he was a child abuser."
Mr. Lauro's decision has been questioned by other child welfare experts, who said that the Mr. Sandusky's behavior falls within the state's definition of child sexual abuse.
But the only remnants of Mr. Lauro's investigation are his recollection, since any records associated with the probe would not be public and were purged from the system a year and four months after the case was closed, in accordance with state law.
The department, which also licenses social service agencies, also did annual inspections on Mr. Sandusky's charity from 1982 to present pursuant to two licenses it held as a foster care agency and a social service agency. The inspection reports show only a sprinkling of violations.
Mr. Lauro, who now works for a private social service agency in Harrisburg, said he knew that Mr. Sandusky had showered with the boy. The boy's mother had reported that to police in 1998 and the boy had corroborated this part of the story.
But Mr. Lauro does not recall if the boy relayed to him that Mr. Sandusky had "bear-hugged" him in the shower, which is what he later told the grand jury.
On June 1, 1998, Mr. Lauro and Detective Ronald Shreffler of the University Police tracked Mr. Sandusky down in a small weight room at Penn State as he worked out.
"He wasn't really talkative or outgoing," he said.
There, Mr. Lauro said, Mr. Sandusky admitted to showering with the child and said he felt remorseful about it. Mr. Lauro said his recollection of the rest of the conversation is sketchy. He could not, for example, recall whether Mr. Sandusky admitted to hugging the child in the shower during that interview, though the grand jury presentment indicates that is what he said.
"The only thing he admitted to me and to the detective at that time was that he showered with the kid, but nothing happened," he said. "He said something to the effect that, 'Maybe I shouldn't have done it.'"
Mr. Lauro said he classified the incident as "a boundary issue." It was something that Mr. Sandusky should not have done and it made the child uncomfortable, but it was not child sexual abuse.
"If I would have thought it was anything more than a boundary issue, I would have substantiated the case," he said.
Under the law, Mr. Lauro had to find "substantial evidence" of child sexual abuse to indicate him. For child welfare investigators, child sexual abuse is classified as anything that is described in criminal statutes as such.
Mr. Lauro also was invited by the university police to eavesdrop on a conversation between the boy's mother and Mr. Sandusky. He declined and asked Detective Shreffler to get back to him with what he learned. He recalled that Detective Shreffler told him they extracted nothing new from the conversation. So University Police closed their case and Mr. Lauro followed suit.
But Mr. Lauro said he was not privy to the entire conversation that police listened in on. He did not know that the mother had asked Mr. Sandusky if his private parts touched the boy and that he had responded "I don't think so ... maybe."
But he could not say with certainty if it would have been enough. It would depend, he said, on "context." "I don't recall him ever telling me that. It could have changed my thinking. I could have dug around and found something else," he said.
Others who have worked in child welfare have said that Mr. Sandusky's showering with the child -- even without contact -- was enough to indicate a case. And child welfare workers can, and frequently do, indicate a case even if a prosecutor declines to pursue it.
"That's 'perp by admission' right there," said Larry Breitenstein, the former director of the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau and a professor of social work at Slippery Rock University. The phrase means the suspected perpetrator acknowledges an action that qualifies as sexual abuse and thus can be flagged. "Most people in child welfare would say that would meet the definition."
Mr. Breitenstein acknowledged the job of investigating suspected child abuse is a difficult one. Welfare workers occasionally close a case where they strongly believe abuse is occurring, but the abuse may not meet the legal definition. They want to make sure they're protecting children, but are cognizant that their actions can have severe consequences for the target of the investigation, particularly if the person is accused of victimizing someone in his or her family.
"You really have to be diligent in trying to keep those two things in focus," he said.
Mr. Lauro said he believed he struck that balance. The case was far from clear-cut, but it was not one that he felt met the definition for a sexual abuse perpetrator.
"I do remember I didn't feel real good" at the conclusion of the investigation, he said. "But you have to follow your protocols."
First Published December 11, 2011 12:00 am