(Lebanon) – Child abuse reports dropped across Pennsylvania last year, raising concerns from child welfare professionals that the COVID-19 pandemic isolated children from the school employees, healthcare providers, and other community members who are legally required to report suspected abuse.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services saw a “slight increase” in fatalities and near fatalities, especially for children under a year old, along with injuries that could indicate a lack of supervision, according to Jon Rubin, Deputy Secretary for the Office of Children, Youth, and Families.
“We are seeing more serious injuries occurring in the home than we had in previous years,” Rubin told WITF’s Smart Talk host Scott Lamar, noting that parents’ stress and exhaustion as well as children’s boredom in the home may have contributed to the increase.
Reports of child abuse statewide were down 22% in 2020 compared to 2019, according to DHS. Total reports, including those that aren’t classified as child abuse but may indicate neglect or supervision issues, were down 16%.
Lebanon County, where two high-profile child abuse investigations came to light in the last year, saw a different trend.
Early in the pandemic, Lebanon County’s Children and Youth Services, which receives reports from DHS, saw a drop-off. From March through August 2020, CYS Administrator Erin Moyer said they had declined by 50%. In 2020, the agency received 2,329 referrals from the state, compared with 2,719 in 2019.
But data more closely matching public school calendars tells a different story.
Between August 2020 and March 2021, CYS counted 45% more reports, including child abuse and General Protective Services reports, than for the same months the previous year. So far in 2021, it has received 828, Moyer said.
Moyer offers several possible explanations for the increase: first, mandatory reporters might be quicker to report since they have a smaller window into children’s lives.
“In the past they would have had a chance to talk to the child about what was going on and it may have eased their concerns,” she said. Most schools in the county have been open for in-person learning at least part of the time this school year, with options to learn online full-time.
Second, two cases in Annville heightened vigilance. In May, law enforcement found 12-year-old Max Schollenberger dead in his room, surrounded by evidence of prolonged abuse, and later charged his father, Scott Schollenberger, and his father’s partner, Kimberly Maurer, with homicide. In January 2021, a child received medical treatment after becoming unresponsive, and the investigation that followed resulted in assault, abuse, and other charges against his adoptive parents, Stephanie and Robert Duncan, who were guardians of four other children.
During Child Abuse Prevention Month in April, several organizations in Lebanon County and around the state are hosting online events to help mandated reporters – and anyone else – understand physical and behavioral signs of abuse as well as the reporting process.
“If we all use the same systems and processes and know how they work and what we can do to be a part of it, hopefully we can make that system better and stronger in the long run,” said Ali Perrotto, CEO of the Sexual Assault Resource and Counseling Center. The organization is holding some of the training and doing outreach for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, also in April.
The state’s designated phone number for child abuse reports, or Child Line, is 1-800-932-0313. Under the state’s Child Protective Services Law, county agencies are required to investigate all reports that indicate suspected child abuse. For reports that point to other concerns, such as truancy, organizations like CYS decide whether to investigate and how quickly. During this school year so far, Moyer said Lebanon’s agency has investigated 975 reports.
Sometimes, an agency receives multiple reports for the same situation, in which case only one is marked “accepted” for investigation or transfers the case to law enforcement or a different county, if that’s where the suspected abuse or neglect is taking place. Of the rest of its referrals, Moyer wrote in an email CYS investigates about 50-60%.
The agency is required to finish investigations within 60 days, at which point it can resolve the case, transfer it to a department so the family receives ongoing services, or place children in foster care, she said.
After learning about the high-profile investigation into the Duncans’ alleged treatment of their adoptive children in Annville, neighbors said they had submitted reports years earlier and criticized CYS for apparently not acting to protect the children, the Lebanon Daily News reported. Lebanon County Commissioners published a statement saying they had found a record of a call to law enforcement, but no evidence the child welfare agency ignored reports.
Perrotto said concerns about people making reports and never hearing what happened next came up in “collaborative discussions” SARCC has been part of. “We’ve had that experience at SARCC as well,” she said, adding that if a report does not have the information required to trigger a Child Protective Services classification, which covers suspected child abuse, it goes into the General Protective Services category.
“In which case,” Perrotto said, “there’s not a requirement under the law that anyone gets follow-up information about what happened with that report and investigation.”
People can call CYS to follow up on their reports, which, if submitted through Child Line, will have a tracking number. And Perrotto said, they can submit another report if they learn new information and reach out to support children and families who appear to be struggling.
“We know that the trauma of experiencing child abuse can have lasting impacts, and so a better connected community reduces the risk of long-term effects of that trauma,” she said.
Angela Liddle, President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, said on Smart Talk that a “paradigm shift” has been underway in the child welfare field, some of that reflected in how the state and national government funds programs. She said there is more emphasis on the importance of preventing child abuse through education and support for parents.
“Most of us parent the way we were parented, for good or not so good. And most of us are embarrassed to say, ‘It’s not natural for us and we need help,’” she said.
This year, Pennsylvania plans to implement the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, which aims to promote a preventative approach while allowing for more children to stay with their families and deter agencies from sending them to congregate settings. The law’s rollout deadline was originally scheduled for last year but was delayed with approval from the federal government.
From WITF-FM, April 8, 2021