Amid school closures, cancelled holidays, and compulsory mask wearing, 2020 was a difficult year for children, but none more so than for those who lived in abusive homes.
A recently released annual child abuse report from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services showed that in 2020, the state registered a 43 percent increase in child abuse deaths compared to 2019.
That is, 73 children died from child abuse in 2020 compared to 51 deaths in 2019. The increase is new and significant; reports going back to 2010 average 37 deaths a year. And it is notably higher than the 17 COVID-19 deaths in children aged 0-19 recorded in Pennsylvania not only in 2020, but also counting all COVID-19 deaths in Pennsylvania children up to Oct. 7 this year, according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.
The child abuse report (pdf) also shows that in 2020, there were 115 near deaths compared to 93 near deaths in 2019.
Reports of suspected child abuse also dropped by 22 percent, from 42,252 reports in 2019 to 32,919 reports. This decline in reports coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic can be attributed to the reduced contact between children and mandated reporters during that time, the report says. COVID-19 mitigation measures like school closures meant children had fewer interactions in 2020 with mandated child abuse reporters, such as teachers, coaches, and scout leaders who work or volunteer with children and are required to report cases of suspected child abuse.
The report also detailed 4,941 substantiated statewide reports of child abuse. Of those, 1,932 were sexual abuse cases, the leading category, and 1,384 were physical abuse/bodily injury. Other categories include serious physical neglect, serious mental injury, sexual exploitation, and trafficking.
As in previous years, parents continue to be the persons most responsible for abusing children, with 1,417 fathers and 1,332 mothers found guilty of child abusers. The report describes other abusers as siblings, babysitters, school staff, relatives, and others who have access to children.
There are issues that do not rise to the level of suspected child abuse but show a need for intervention. In these cases, Statewide General Protective Services provide reports to the Department of Human Services, which then send them to each county’s Children and Youth Service Agency to respond.
Children and Youth Service Agencies handled 87,018 cases like this in 2020. Of those, 20,892 cases involved a caregiver with a substance abuse problem—by far, the most common concern. Other categories of concern include a caregiver placing a child at risk or failing to protect a child, educational neglect/truancy, homelessness, domestic violence, a lack of supervision, and inappropriate discipline.
In these cases, the department’s aim is to prevent abuse or neglect, and preserve and stabilize family life wherever appropriate, the report said.