Statistics don't tell total child abuse story
By Jeanette Krebs
Recently the state released its annual report on child abuse.
As Gov. Tom Corbett wrote in one of the first pages, the number of cases of substantiated child abuse reports declined to 14.9 percent in 2010.
This was compared with 15.6 percent in 2009.
The fact that fewer substantiated child abuse cases have been reported, on the surface, appears to be a good thing. However, physicians, child advocates and law enforcement are worried despite the decrease.
They believe the state’s current system of reporting means more children are abused than the statistics reveal and that they are simply suffering in silence.
We hear all the time about cases of abuse that end in a child being harmed or killed.
Last year, it was Jayahn Cox-Phoenix, a 3-year-old in Harrisburg who died of traumatic head injury and drowning. But many cases of abuse go unreported.
In Pennsylvania, although the substantiated child abuse numbers — those that are investigated or prosecuted — are down, referrals to what is called General Protective Services, which provides help for children whose cases don’t meet the definition of the state’s abuse law, are up 9 percent or 39,791 cases in 2010.
There is more reason to wonder about our numbers. On a national scale, Pennsylvania is well below other states and the national average when it comes to figures on investigated child abuse cases. In our state, 8.3 of every 1,000 children are involved in an abuse case.
The national average is 40.3, according to 2009 figures from the federal Administration for Children and Families. Child welfare groups say Pennsylvania’s number is so low compared with other states it raises a red flag in the way we define child abuse.
Pennsylvania also is well below the national rate of children receiving child protective services and there are even questions about how abuse is handled when you look at county-by-county numbers. The rate of abuse cases was 2.5 per 1,000 children in Philadelphia last year yet it was only .4 in Allegheny County.
In sparsely populated Potter County, that number is 3.5 and in Dauphin County it is 1.5, according to state figures. Advocates say there are too many times when a child needing protection falls outside the state’s legal definition of abuse. Our definition of child abuse is considered one of the most narrow in the country.
Many incidents that fall short here, advocates say, would be considered abuse in other states. There is enough concern and enough questioning coming from various groups that these issues should be examined. It is much like the questions that were raised about our statewide juvenile court system.
When it became clear children in Luzerne County were standing before judges with no attorneys and being sent to detention centers for minor infractions, our state did something to make certain we were protecting our children.
Judges, advocates and government officials pulled together and created the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice. The group met several times, examined the issue and released a report last May that provided an important list of 43 recommendations touching on all aspects of the juvenile justice system. Those recommendations are now being used in juvenile courts across the state.
Lawmakers also are steering legislation to help protect youth in the court system to make sure there are no more “cash for kids” tragedies. There could be explanations for some of these child abuse issues, but we need to stop and figure that out. It has been too long since we have taken a hard look at the child protection services.
On Wednesday, the confirmation hearing for acting public welfare Secretary Gary Alexander will be held. Senators should ask him about the child abuse issue and press him to support the creation of a commission on child abuse that would take a hard look at child abuse reporting and investigating in our state and make certain services for children are coordinated.
Everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to reporting child abuse. Given the complexities of the child welfare system and how often children might be having serious problems without getting the proper attention, he also should consider the idea of a children’s ombudsman, which would create an independent office to resolve concerns about an individual child.
The number of children who died from reported child abuse is down from 43 in 2009 to 33 last year.
This is promising but any death is too many, and we need to be sure no child is falling through the cracks in our state.