With fewer watchful eyes, advocates fear child abuse is going unreported

Brandon Addeo
York Dispatch

Child abuse reports dropped significantly in 2020 as the pandemic forced children to stay away from adults obligated to report suspected abuse. 

State health officials said that 32,919 child abuse reports were made in 2020, compared with 42,252 in 2019 — an approximately 22% decline. But the amount of confirmed child abuse reports dropped only slightly, with 4,593 in 2020 compared with 4,865 the year prior.

"It makes sense that, in a year where school was conducted primarily on virtual platforms, that educators would have fewer reasons to report concerns," said Jon Rubin, deputy secretary at the state's Office of Children, Youth and Families.

School staff — who are considered "mandated reporters" obligated by law to report suspected child abuse — typically make up the highest percentage of child abuse reporters every year. Statewide, reports from school employees dropped off considerably in 2020, with more than 7,000 fewer reports made than in 2019.

Participants light candles before reading a pledge during the ninth annual candlelight vigil for abuse awareness at the Penn State York campus Wednesday, March 4, 2020. The event is sponsored by Penn State York's Human Development and Family Studies Club. Originally a vigil for child abuse awareness, this year's event has expanded to include sexual abuse and human trafficking awareness. Bill Kalina photo

York County followed the same downward trend in reports. For cases of child sex abuse, 30% fewer reports were made last year, according to data from York County Children, Youth and Families.

More:York County child sex abuse reports dropped 30% in 2020

While the number of reports made by mandated reporters decreased statewide, reports by "permissive reporters," or people not obligated to report suspected abuse, stayed about the same level in 2020 as in 2019.

"I think we can reasonably conclude community members were still looking out for children in 2020 despite the heightened isolation," Rubin said. 

While it's reasonable to say the pandemic kept some child abuse cases "off the radar," in some cases it might have helped reduce abuse, according to Cathleen Palm of the nonprofit Center for Children's Justice. With families staying at home more, it's possible some family units were made stronger.

"For some families, having less wear-and-tear and being pulled in different directions led to … more supervision for kids," Palm said. "I think we need to think of that as a possibility."

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich reads aloud the anonymous names of child abuse victims during a ceremony presented by the Children's Advocacy Center on Thursday, April 1. Tina Locurto photo.

Palm also encouraged people to focus less on the pandemic's effect on child welfare and more on the ongoing drug and opioid crisis. That includes violence caused by drugs and children having access to ingest drugs.

"Even without the pandemic, we remain on course for not great outcomes with continued undercurrent of real challenge with the opiate crisis," she said. 

In 2020, five children with a cause of death ruled as "ingestion/poisoning" had ingested opioids, state data shows. That is about 42% of overall ingestion/poisoning deaths in 2020. 

York County had 1,643 total child abuse reports in 2020, the fewest amount of reports since 2014. The most common form of abuse was physical abuse, with sexual abuse a close second. 

Child fatalities: State health officials said child abuse resulting in deaths, or near deaths, increased substantially during the pandemic.

State child services workers investigated 73 child fatalities in 2020, a 43% increase over 2019. Rubin said there were increases in deaths caused by a lack of supervision from a child's guardian. 

Child services workers investigated two child fatalities in York County last year. 

In April 2020, a 3-year-old child drowned after falling facedown in a neighbor's pond, according to a fatality report. The child's guardian was in a bathroom for about 10 minutes while the child wandered out of their home.

Participants read a pledge during the ninth annual candlelight vigil for abuse awareness at the Penn State York campus Wednesday, March 4, 2020. Originally a vigil for child abuse awareness, this year's event has expanded to include sexual abuse and human trafficking awareness. The event is sponsored by Penn State York's Human Development and Family Studies Club. Bill Kalina photo

Police and child services workers ultimately ruled the child's death was accidental because the family had child alarms and safeguards in place. 

Another child, a 5-month-old, died in May 2020 after sleeping on a sofa, according to another fatality report. A jacket was covering the child's face. A cause of death wasn't determined by the time the report was published, and a police investigation was in progress. 

Family First: The state's Department of Human Services this week announced Pennsylvania's implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act.

The act lets states use federal funds in administering their child welfare systems, and to fund certain mental health prevention and treatment, substance use prevention and treatment and in-home parenting skill-based programs to prevent placing children in out-of-home congregate foster care settings, such as an institution or group home. 

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As of April, about 44% of Pennsylvania children in foster care live in homes of relatives — known as "kinship care" — while about 13% are in congregate settings.

"The implementation of our plan will enhance the impact of work we were already doing to strengthen families and keep children safe with their families, in their homes, whenever and however possible,” acting Department of Human Services Secretary Meg Snead said.

ChildLine: Anyone who suspects a child is being abused can make a report with Pennsylvania's ChildLine by calling 1-800-932-0313. 

"If you’re a neighbor or community member and something unsettles you, absolutely call ChildLine," Palm said. "The person on the other end is going to walk you through it."

Experts say the people who are most likely to spot and report suspected abuse are now confined to their homes and unable to keep their eyes on vulnerable children.

— Reach Brandon Addeo at baddeo@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @BrandonAddeo.