It is often said that a society can be judged by how we treat those most vulnerable among us. For those of us that work to strengthen families and communities, we have found ourselves heartbroken—once again—because current data demonstrates that collectively, our society is failing Pennsylvania’s children.
The Department of Human Services recently released its annual Child Protective Services Report, and it detailed the number of abuse cases across the Commonwealth in 2021. According to the report, there were 5,438 substantiated child abuse cases, 136 near fatalities, and fifty-eight fatalities. Those numbers, while shocking, represent an overall increase from the prior year.
Unfortunately, we anticipated that would occur.
Out of the total number of substantiated child abuse cases, 446 were under the age of one, 1,074 were between the ages of one and four years old, 1,526 were between the ages of five and nine years old, 1,440 were between the ages of 10-14 years old, and 550 were children 15 years of age and older.
The Child Protective Services Report also revealed two other alarming data points that should inform how we combat this epidemic, which has clearly become a public health crisis and needs viewed as such.
First, sexual abuse continues to remain the leading type of abuse against children, followed by physical abuse.
Second, parents, relatives, significant others, and/or current and former spouses of parents continue to be the individuals most responsible for the abuse of children.
Research shows that child abuse and neglect can be multi-generational, as many parents struggle to break the cycle of “parenting the way they were parented.” All too often parents lack knowledge of child development, positive parenting techniques, and an adequate support system—all vital components for healthy families and safe communities.
The good news is Pennsylvania is home to many child and family-serving organizations dedicated to helping moms and dads provide a safe and loving home for their children through proven effective prevention programs.
These prevention programs are often overlooked and underfunded, but they are widely available and provided at no cost to families. They provide a supportive environment for parents to learn creative ways to improve communication with their children and replace harmful patterns of parenting with positive techniques.
For example, in Western Pennsylvania, Wesley Family Services administers ParentWISE, a program that provides classes, workshops, and educational and support services derived from several different evidenced based curriculums that address the challenges of parenting. The program is available to anyone that finds themselves in a caregiver role and wants to learn how to be a better parent.
In Eastern Pennsylvania, Family Service Association of Bucks County has the Family Strengthening Parent Support Group, a program that provides weekly sessions for individuals who want to improve their parenting skills, learn about stress reduction, and how to care for themselves. They receive advice and strategies on how to be a better parent from a Master’s-level clinician like a therapist or counselor, and individuals can share with one another—both the joys and trials—of what it is like to be a parent.
We know making resources available in our local communities can alter the trajectory of child abuse trends in Pennsylvania. An investment in prevention can increase the likelihood of a child growing into a happy, healthy, and contributing member of their community. An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure—for children, families, and an overwhelmed child welfare system.
As the adage goes, “We repeat what we do not repair.” Let us not let next year’s Child Protective Services Report be filled with data that demoralizes us. We need to use these annual reports constructively to examine how we provide for and treat our children, so they can grow and thrive in a safe, secure family where each member is celebrated and valued.
To learn more about the warning signs of child abuse please visit pafsa.org/recognizing-abuse-neglect. If you suspect a child is being abused, please immediately call Pennsylvania’s ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313.
Angela Liddle is CEO of the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance.
Julie Dees is CEO of the Family Service Association of Bucks County.
Doug Muetzel is CEO of Wesley Family Services.
From Harrisburg Patriot-News (PennLive), August 14, 2022