Child abuse reporting up; thousands of children remain at risk in Pennsylvania

Article via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

A record number of child abuse reports were made in Pennsylvania in 2014, new state statistics show, but a disturbingly high number of children remain vulnerable despite efforts to improve the investigation of abuse allegations.

According to the state’s annual report on child abuse, there were more than 47,000 general protective service referrals in 2014, a number that has risen more than 30 percent since 2010.

The referrals — which are assessed by county youth services agencies — often point to children who are experiencing “non-serious injury or neglect,” but can also involve children at significant risk of abuse.

“Clearly that’s a barometer that children and families remain in a pretty high crisis state,” said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Pennsylvania-based Center for Children’s Justice. “There’s a heck of a lot of vulnerable kids.”

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Between 2010 and 2014, more than 400 children died or nearly died as a result of abuse or neglect in Pennsylvania, according to a report from the Center for Children’s Justice. Often, children who die from abuse or neglect were once the subject of a general protective service referral, Ms. Palm said.

“The referral is an early warning sign that if we don’t do something, something much worse could happen to the child,” she said.

Though the referrals are concerning to experts, the number of child abuse reports the state is receiving has never been higher, the annual report shows.

ChildLine — the state’s child abuse hotline — reported 29,273 cases of suspected child abuse or neglect in 2014, more than 2,000 greater than the total in 2013.

The state has worked to open lifelines for reporting abuse since 2012, when it convened a task force to make recommendations on how to improve state laws to better protect children.

The state has since passed 23 laws addressing the issue, including one that expanded the list of mandated reporters of child abuse and another that broadened the definition of abuse. In 2014, both laws passed and the state launched as a hub for information on child protection.

“We anticipate the number of reports of suspected child abuse will continue to rise as laws go into effect and awareness continues to grow,” said Michael Race, spokesman for Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. “Now people are not only aware of what abuse looks like, but aware of how to report it.”

Of the 29,273 reports, about 11 percent were substantiated after investigation, which is down from nearly 13 percent in 2013 and nearly 15 percent in 2010.

In the opening of the report, Theodore Dallas, state secretary of human services, said the decrease in substantiated reports is a sign of progress.

But Mary Carrasco — director of A Child’s Place at Mercy — said the decrease is because the data hasn’t caught up with the legislation. She expects the number to increase once the state sees the effects of the 2014 law that lowered the threshold for substantiating child abuse.

“If the substantiation rate increases, it doesn’t mean you’re doing worse,” Dr. Carrasco said. “It means more kids might get help.”

With a growing number of child abuse reports and pressure to substantiate them, child protection experts worry that youth services agencies and caseworkers will be strained

“You could have the systems so overwhelmed with responding to reports that they really don’t rise to the general protective service referrals,” Ms. Palm said. “Then they’re distracted from kids who might be falling through the cracks.”