By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau
Reports of suspected child abuse rose 9 percent last year in Pennsylvania, reaching the highest number since the state began collecting such reports a decade ago. In 2012, ChildLine, Pennsylvania’s child abuse hotline, registered 26,664 reports of suspected abuse or neglect; an increase of 2,286 reports from the previous year.
Joan Benso, president and executive director of the Pennsylvania Partnership for Children, said most experts attribute the increase to the “heightened awareness” of Pennsylvanians jolted into vigilance by the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
The percentage of child abuse reports that were substantiated fell slightly — from 14 percent in 2011 to 13.4 percent in 2012, according to a newly released annual report by the state Department of Public Welfare.
Benso said the numbers remain somewhat skewed because many of the incidents reported as suspected abuse do not end up getting cataloged as “substantiated,” simply because the state’s standard for child abuse is outdated. Adjusting the definition of child abuse is one of the key legislative remedies recommended by a task force on child protection. But while correcting the definition might seem like a simple matter of editing, the effort has become the center of a smoldering controversy in the Legislature, said David Heckler, a former state lawmaker who chaired the task force on child protection.
Central to the standoff are concerns that the state’s well-intentioned effort to spell out abuse will turn Pennsylvania into a nanny state where parents are in legal hot water for disciplining their children.
“In my day, if you wanted to stand up and vote in defense of your constituents’ right to beat their kids, then you could do that,” Heckler said. “Now, they try to deal with these things in committee to avoid controversy.”
He pointed to an exchange in a hearing after he discovered that language that would specifically make it illegal to “restrict the breathing of a child,” shake a baby or strike a child under the age of 1, had all been stripped from the bill.
Heckler said he questioned that move and had a lawmaker defend the move.
What would happen if you were in church and your child began to cry and you cover his mouth with your hand? Would that violate the provision against “restricting breathing.”
Heckler noted that when he’s been in church, he’s always seen parents manage to hustle noisy children out of the service rather than smothering them.
“That’s the kind of paranoia” that must be overcome, he said.
It is a stumbling block in what has otherwise been an encouraging march toward reform as there are numerous bills in both the Senate and House that are designed to make changes suggested by Heckler’s task force.
But the most important thing might be fixing the communication gap between caseworkers who investigate neglect complaints and those who may later need to respond to abuse allegations.
Benso said one of the most important steps the Legislature must take will be to provide the Welfare Department with the money to update its computer systems to better track complaints.
Heckler noted that another important move would be to develop a database for caseworkers and police to chronicle every single interaction between a person and Children and Youth Services.
One of the repeated failings in the system is that caseworkers may investigate a complaint about a specific problem in a child’s living situation only to close the case as soon as that problem is corrected. Then, if the family moves, the information about the prior episode gets lost, Heckler said.
Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.
While reports of suspected child abuse rose 9 percent last year in Pennsylvania, there was a sharp uptick noted in Crawford County, where suspected child abuse reports rose from 274 in 2011 to 351 in 2012 — an increase of 28 percent.
“In a year of high-profile child abuse cases unfolding, it is not surprising to see an increase in the number of child abuse reports being filed locally or across the state,” Crawford County Court Appointed Special Advocates program director Patricia Henry said. CASA works with the court system and Crawford County Human Services to advocate for abused and neglected children.
Crawford County’s rate of substantiated reports fell by 26 percent, from 42 cases in 2011 to 31 cases in 2013. The county’s rate of substantiated reports is now 1.6 per 1,000 children in the county, improvement from 2011’s rate of 2.1 per 1,000 children.
Henry said that increased training of mandated reporters — people who are required to report suspected cases of child abuse — helped explain the higher numbers. Mandated reporters accounted for 78 percent of reports of suspected abuse last year, the report found. Under state law, mandated reporters include physicians, school teachers and administrators, social-services workers, and child-care workers.
This year’s report includes completed child abuse case data collected during the 2012 calendar year. Some of the findings included in the report are:
n Thirty-three child fatalities occurred in 2012, one less than the previous year. The report indicates there were no abuse or neglect related fatalities in Crawford County.
n Reviewing rates for all 67 counties in Pennsylvania for 2012, Crawford County tied for 20th in substantiated abuse cases in ranking counties from highest to lowest number of abuse cases per 1,000 children. Last year, Crawford County was tied for eighth in rate from highest to lowest number of abuse cases per 1,000 children and shared that ranking with Philadelphia, which improved from eighth to 17th.
n Comparing the five-county region with the state average of 1.3 cases per 1,000 children, Forest County tops the list at 8.3 cases per 1,000 children, followed by Warren County with 2.5, Venango County with 1.9, Mercer County with 1.7, Crawford County with 1.6 and Erie County at 1.3.