Grace Wild remembers the large metal box her father built in the basement to threaten his children. If they talked to anyone about his abuse, they would be locked in that coffin.
She spent three days in it.
Her father, Eugene Wild, abused his wife so badly that he went to jail for it, and after she died, his 12 children had no one to protect them from his abuse and assaults.
The final blow for Grace was a cast iron skillet over her head – again and again – because she didn’t make a sandwich the way he wanted. She spent 11 days at Hershey Medical Center with a brain injury, according to her hospital records, but she has spent her lifetime recovering emotionally.
At 43, she still sees a therapist.
When she read about the death last year of Max Schollenberger, right around the corner from her home in Lebanon County, it all came back. It’s not just the abuse and neglect allegations against Max’s father and pseudo-stepmother that infuriates her. It’s also a system that’s not able to protect children like Max.
Just two months ago, another Lebanon County boy nearly died of what authorities called severe abuse and hypothermia at the hands of the parents who adopted him, Robert and Stephanie Duncan. His four brothers allegedly faced “graphic punishments, restrictions, and the denial of basic, necessary sustenance," according to an official. His parents are in prison awaiting a June trial on multiple charges.
“I can only imagine how much abuse lingers on the minds of these children. They live the rest of their lives with the mind frame that they can’t trust nobody,” Grace said. “This needs to stop. This abuse needs to stop.”
In 2019, 51 children died from abuse or neglect in Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. The majority of those were toddlers 4 years and younger. Another 93 children were listed as "near fatalities," and 87% of those were 4 years and younger.
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Many of those families had been on the radar of child protective services, but they died anyway. The Bucks County Children and Youth Services office was investigating Shana Decree in February 2019, when she and her adult daughter killed five of their family members, three of them children. They pleaded guilty but mentally ill last year to five counts of first degree murder and were each sentenced to five consecutive life sentences.
These cases underscore flaws in the system:
- Children and Youth Service agencies manage far more than abuse. In Pennsylvania, the same caseworkers who help poor families find social services also investigate abuse cases. One advocate for child protection reform says the true abuse cases are "needles in a haystack." The haystack of cases is simply too big.
- From the 42,000 reports of child abuse in 2019, 37,000 were labeled "unfounded," according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services' 2019 child protective services annual report. The bar is high to attain the level of "substantiated," in part because bruises aren't necessarily enough proof of abuse; parents are legally permitted in Pennsylvania to spank their children.
- Some children aren't known to CYS workers, as in the cases of Max Schollenberger and the five Duncan children. Max never went to school; the Duncan children were homeschooled. In Pennsylvania, educators are "mandatory reporters," legally required to report abuse if they see evidence. In the 2019 reports of abuse in this state, the biggest number - nearly 13,000 - came from school employees, according to the DHS.
State legislators have reformed laws and policies in the three decades since Grace Wild's severe abuse, but is it enough? Is a greater transformation needed? Pennsylvania spends millions of dollars each year on child protection and millions more on foster care, but the system continues to fail the one person who has no advocate: the child.
Grace Wild’s torture
When Eugene Wild got out of jail for beating his wife, he showed up at the house in Ohio where Grace, her siblings and their mother were living with an aunt.
“I remember my dad coming to the door because I had a hold of my mom’s leg,” Grace said. “My dad gave my mom red roses and then pointed a gun to her head and said, ‘If you don’t come out here with you and the kids, I’m gonna kill you and the kids.’”
They piled into two black vans, one driven by Eugene Wild and the other by another man that Grace described as his “inmate friend.”
They all returned to a working class neighborhood in North Philadelphia. Wild forced his children and wife into the basement of their rowhouse to dig a hole.
“My dad had us digging a hole for about three to four days. He wouldn’t let us fall asleep. If we fell asleep, we’d get kicked in the head, we would get kicked in the mouth, we would get hit wherever he felt clever to hit us or kick us,” Grace said.
When the hole met Wild’s expectations, he sent his family upstairs, then he got to work. Grace, who was just 5 years old, can remember the sounds of hammering and drilling coming from the basement.
When he was done, Grace’s father called his family downstairs to see the metal box he had created.
“He said, ‘This is a homemade coffin,’” Grace recalled, with a tightness in her throat. “He said, ‘If any of yous would ever betray me, I would put one of you guys on top of the other, close the gate, put a flame to the ceiling and let yous burn to death.’ And I remember looking at him scared because I had a feeling that might be me that was gonna go in that later on.”
She was right.
Her sister, Prayer Wild, said her father hurt Grace more than anyone else.
Hear the Incredible childhood abuse story that shaped Grace Wild
Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record
In Max Schollenberger's home, he was isolated from the other children in his family and had never attended school or seen a doctor since he was a toddler.
In the Duncan home, the three oldest boys were allegedly abused the most, living on concrete floors in the basement with few personal belongings.
“I do think that people sometimes go down the path where there’s a child they begin to lack empathy for,” said Lori Frasier, division chief for child abuse pediatrics at Penn State Children’s Hospital. “In many cases, there is a targeted child. The parent does not perceive this child as worthy.”
Scott Schollenberger and his girlfriend Kimberly Maurer, now both in prison awaiting June trials, had other children in the home, but Max was the one moved into hiding, fed only the table scraps of the other children. The son of Schollenberger and an ex-girlfriend, he was locked in his bedroom, where he died at the age of 12 from blunt force head trauma complicated by starvation, according to police documents.
”They go so far down that path that they can’t go back,” Frasier said. “They know in their hearts that they will get discovered; it’s going to be very bad for them. I can’t even fathom that someone doesn’t realize that this isn’t going to be discovered and that there isn’t going to be repercussions.”
Max's mother: 'I thought Maxwell was in good hands'
Grace Wild felt like the target.
"He said I got beat the worst because I looked like mom," she said.
Locked in a coffin
The basement was a torture chamber in the Wild house, where assaults were common.
That’s where Eugene Wild led his 8-year-old daughter, Grace, because she kept looking out the window, waiting for her mother to come home from the hospital. A diabetic, Eva Wild had become ill, and just before Grace's 8th birthday, died at the hospital.
”I thought she would come back, but she never came back,” Grace said, her voice getting quiet. “I looked out that window every day, never came back.”
Grace's punishment for her display of grief would be the worst. He locked her in the metal box.
“I can still smell the dirt, the musty dirt smell in the basement. I thought I was never gonna get out,” she said. “I acted up, and I guess that’s what his monstrous consequence was. The mind of the monster.”
She waited for someone to let her out, crying and screaming for someone to let her out. She was cold and scared that she'd never leave that box.
"Whenever he didn’t get what he wanted, he’d beat you," said Prayer Wild, Grace's older sister. "I think when I got his burger wrong at Burger King, he punched me in the mouth."
A few years later, the Wild family moved to Lebanon, leaving the coffin behind but not the abuse.
Grace was 12 when her father told her to make a sandwich for him, then he beat her over the head with a cast iron skillet because it wasn't right, she said. She spent 11 days in Hershey Medical Center, but that wasn't enough to convince a Lebanon County judge that her father was a danger.
The brutal death of a toddler
Maxwell Fisher was just 18 months old when his mother’s boyfriend raped and beat him to death in a Reading apartment.
The toddler's death in 1996 was so brutal that legislators used it as a crisis study, formed a committee to study his death and others more deeply, then opened the records to reports of child fatalities and near fatalities in the state. You can read those reports here.
Maxwell's treatment at home and subsequent death revealed a breakdown in the child protection system: At the time Maxwell died, his family was being monitored by Children and Youth Services in Berks County.
According to a Pennsylvania General Assembly document, this is the sequence of events before Maxwell died:
Her son, Maxwell, died on Dec. 18, 1996, with “significant quantities” of cocaine, morphine and codeine in his system. He was malnourished with roach and rat bites all over his body, and he had been raped twice, according to a state document.
“A Berks County official defended his agency's actions in this case by asserting that the Fisher family history is no worse than dozens of cases the agency handles monthly and that the information contained in county children and youth services records was no worse than 153 other cases of alleged abuse processed in September 1996 alone,” according to a Pennsylvania General Assembly document.
"Pennsylvania’s commitment to learning from and preventing child abuse fatalities and near fatalities was born out of the 1996 rape and murder" of Maxwell Fisher, according to the Department of Human Services' fatality/near fatality trend report of 2015-16.
The boy's mother, April Fisher, went to jail for six years, released in 2003 at the age of 32, after pleading guilty to homicide, aggravated assault, several counts of endangering the welfare of children and other crimes, according to court documents.
Percy Perez, 20 years old at the time of Maxwell’s death, remains in jail on a life sentence for second degree murder, aggravated assault, rape and other sexual abuse charges, according to his court records. He is 43 years old.
What's wrong with the system?
Child protective services in Pennsylvania and most states is not working, according to Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.
He calls the worst of the child abuse and neglect cases: "needles in a haystack."
“You can’t find the needles by constantly making the haystack bigger,” he said.
The haystack includes everything that county-operated Children and Youth Services cover in Pennsylvania, from reports of physical and sexual abuse to school truancy and much more in between.
The state spent $1.9 billion on that haystack of child welfare services in 2019, and less than 15% of that went specifically toward child protective services, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The big pot of funding also covers foster care, adoptions and in-home preventive services.
Wexler points to a number of ways the system isn't working, but at the heart of it, much time and money is spent on removing children from their homes and funding their foster care, rather than helping some of those impoverished parents with rent subsidies and childcare provisions.
"Thirty percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents had adequate housing," he said.
If fewer families struggled to keep their children fed, the haystack would be smaller for Children and Youth Service offices. Overworked case workers would then have more time to spend on suspected child abuse cases, Wexler said.
In Pennsylvania, calls of suspected child abuse or neglect go through Childline, a 24-hour hotline to alert authorities of suspected abuse. In 2019, there were more than 42,000 reports of abuse in Pennsylvania, and only 4,900 of them were "substantiated," or met the requirements of an abuse claim.
"All the time workers spend on false allegations, trivial cases, and cases in which family poverty is confused with neglect (and when you add up those categories, they account for a staggering proportion of CYS workers’ caseload) is, in effect, stolen from finding those relatively few children in real danger," Wexler said.
What happened to Grace?
Grace was placed in temporary foster care after her father's blows put her in the hospital. A case worker and doctor evaluated her there.
In Lebanon County court, though, their reports didn't help.
Grace remembers the judge calling her a "brat" for crying and vomiting when she was in his courtroom. She was afraid of seeing her father again. The judge ordered her return to her father's home. An older sister pleaded with the judge for Grace and her siblings not to return to their father's home, then Wild told the judge he didn't want any of them, Grace said.
Some of her siblings went with him anyway; some were taken in by people in the community.
A couple from Grace's church took her in, keeping her until she was 18. "They taught me how to love," Grace said.
In 2006, her father died at 65. He had once told her that she wasn't his biological child, and she clings to that statement, comforted that they aren't related.
"I deserve to be happy," said Grace, now the mother of two boys. "I'm gonna be happy every day, no matter what, and nobody’s gonna take that away from me ever again."
In the decades since Grace Wild was abused, Pennsylvania, like other states, has reformed laws and policies, added more titles to the list of people required to report abuse, redefined the work of Children and Youth Services, and reformed foster care. Legislators have made many changes, especially after tragedies, like the brutal death of Maxwell Fisher and the sexual abuse of children by Jerry Sandusky.
The issue remains: Children are still dying from neglect and abuse in their homes, many more are suffering physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
"In 2016, 46 children died and 79 nearly died in Pennsylvania from abuse and neglect. Of those 125 children, nearly half of their families were already in the child-welfare system. Pennsylvania’s child-welfare system is broken," former state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale wrote in a 2017 report called "State of the Child."
Wexler argues that the way to fix the child welfare system is to do the opposite of gut instinct. Ignore the impulse that says to double down on abuse reporting, expand definitions of abuse and neglect, investigate more families and take more children from homes, he said.
"That is the approach we’ve tried in America for more than 50 years," he said. "It is extremely difficult to measure with certainty, but it is likely that the rate of child abuse deaths hasn’t changed in all that time. We know that the overall rate of known cases of what states define as child abuse and neglect has barely budged since 1999."
His organization wants the system to be turned upside down:
- Reduce the number of children removed from their homes. Most of them are placed in foster care because the family is poor. Instead of removing children, rent and childcare subsidies should be provided to economically disadvantaged parents, Wexler said.
- In turn, child protective services can spend more time investigating abuse cases.
- With fewer children needing foster care, the most-qualified people will be chosen as foster parents, Wexler said. The emotional impact on children from being removed from their homes is high, and issues of abuse and neglect occur in foster care as well.
Do you suspect abuse?
The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services operates a 24/7 hotline, available to anyone concerned about the welfare of a child. ChildLine can be reached at 1-800-932-0313. According to DHS, every allegation of child abuse reported to ChildLine is investigated.
Kim Strong can be reached at email@example.com.