York County child sex abuse reports dropped 30% in 2020

Brandon Addeo
York Dispatch

When many children were home from school during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, reports of child sex abuse in York County dropped noticeably.

But that doesn't necessarily mean there was less abuse. 

According to data provided by the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families, there were 75 total reports in 2020. That's 36 fewer reports than in 2019, a reduction of about 32%.

"2020 referral numbers were extremely low in all categories due to schools not being in session, doctors' offices being closed, day care centers being closed, etc.," said Tanya Stauffer, administrator at the York County CYF office. 

Individuals in those spaces — teachers, health care workers, day care providers — are considered "mandated reporters," meaning they're trained to recognize signs of child abuse and are obligated to report it, according to Jim Willshier, chief public affairs officer at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. 

"You, legally, have to do something," Willshier said. 

And with many mandated reporters' locations closed under COVID-19 restrictions, those reporters had less contact with potential child victims.

"The individuals who typically have eyes on children were not seeing them every day due to the COVID shutdown, which resulted in a lower number of referrals coming into child welfare agencies," Stauffer said.

Even in ideal circumstances, sex abuse is typically under-reported. 

Willshier said many victims don't report sex abuse because they feel they won't be believed, and thus it's "hard to say" the true number of abuse survivors. 

York County's reduction in child sex abuse reports last year doesn't necessarily reflect a reduced amount of abuse happening; Stauffer said it's not possible to estimate that. 

Deborah Harrison, executive director of the York County Children’s Advocacy Center, places a sign in the center's Pinwheel Garden at the York City entrance at Rathton Road and South George Street Monday, April 1, 2019.  It is the seventh year that the advocacy center, which provides assistance to alleged victims of child abuse, has planted the garden during Child Abuse Prevention Month. The pinwheels represent number of children the agency has assisted in the past year. Bill Kalina photo

Under Pennsylvania law, county children and youth services agencies investigate and respond to child abuse reports under two different categories: child protective services and general protective services. Broadly speaking, CPS referrals represent the most serious forms of child abuse, while GPS reports cover less serious incidents that still require intervention.

Both York County's CPS reports (68) and GPS reports (seven) last year represent five-year lows. 

Statistics statewide: In each of the last 10 years, sexual abuse was the most common form of child abuse in Pennsylvania. 

The state's Department of Human Services has not yet released its annual 2020 report on child abuse. But according to its 2019 report, of 5,202 total confirmed child abuse reports, 2,087 — or about 40% — involved sexual abuse. The vast majority of child sex abuse perpetrators were members of the child's family or a parent's romantic partner. 

School employees were the most common source of reporting suspected child abuse, followed by social services workers, health care professionals and law enforcement officers, the 2019 report states. 

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