#childsafety | Report looks at child abuse in NEPA

Megan Stachowiak, Research Analyst at The Institute

WILKES-BARRE — Teri Ooms, executive director of The Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development at Wilkes University, said this year’s Health and Health Care Task Force decided to focus on child abuse and neglect.

“It is a topic that no one wants to really learn about, but it exists in Northeastern PA,” Ooms said. “It is fueled by poverty and all of the issues associated with poverty — unstable housing, food insecurity, lack of health care, etc. — and substance abuse and untreated/undiagnosed mental health issues.”

Ooms said the Task Force study is really a primer. She said there are so many avenues of research and there are so many heroes in the region dealing with this, such as C&Y in both Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, the Children’s Advocacy Center, the Family Services Association of Wyoming Valley, Women’s Resource Center, Children’s Services Center and CASA to name a few.

“Child abuse and neglect are one form of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that can have an immediate and long-term impact on children,” Ooms said. “The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that one in seven children have experienced child abuse and/or neglect in the past year, which is likely an underestimate.”

Ooms said one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys will be sexually assaulted before they reach age 18. She said 90 percent of sexual abuse happens at the hands of someone the child knows.

The CDC also reports that children who live in poverty are five times more likely to experience abuse and neglect than those with higher socio-economic status.

In the Lackawanna and Luzerne County region, Ooms said the reports of child abuse have steadily increased annually since 2013, while the percent of substantiated reports has declined.

“This increase was partly due to the changes made in Pennsylvania legislation in 2014, which led to an increase in reports as public awareness of child abuse and neglect increased and improvements were made in mandated and permissive reporter requirements,” Ooms explained.

According to the PA Department of Human Services Child Protective Services 2018 Annual Report, there were over 44,000 reports of child abuse statewide in 2018, including nearly 2,000 reports in Lackawanna and Luzerne County, and 12 percent of these reports were substantiated.

Overall, there were over 5,000 victims of child abuse statewide in 2018 and 233 children in our region.

In Lackawanna County, 2.5 out of 1,000 children were victims of child abuse, and 2 children out of 1,000 were victims in Luzerne County.

Tragically, seven children’s lives were lost to child abuse in this region from 2016-2018, and six of those deaths occurred in Luzerne County.

According to Megan Stachowiak, Research Analyst at The Institute, “Awareness and action can help children. Knowing the signs of child abuse and reporting it can save a child’s life.”

According to the Task Force report:

• The majority of child abuse victims are female, and children ages 5 to 8 make up the largest age group of substantiated cases of abuse, accounting for 26 percent of abuse victims regionally in 2018.

• The proportion of victims ages 9 to 11 also increased noticeably in our region, accounting for 22 percent of victims. In nearly half of all substantiated reports of child abuse statewide from 2016 to 2018, the perpetrator was the child’s mother or father.

• In 50 percent of cases, the child was living in a single parent home at the time of the abuse.

• The majority of allegations in Lackawanna County relate to physical abuse (51 percent) while the allegations in Luzerne County (64 percent) and statewide (47 percent) are predominantly related to sexual abuse.

General protective services (GPS) reports related to neglect outpace reports of child abuse. According to the PA Department of Human Services Child Protective Services 2018 Annual Report, there were nearly 170,000 GPS reports received statewide in 2018, an increase of 12 percent from 2016. Of these reports, 24 percent were found to be valid, amounting to over 40,000 victims of neglect statewide.

In Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties, there were over 8,300 GPS reports in 2018, an increase of 19 percent from 2016 — 26 percent were valid, resulting in over 2,100 victims of neglect regionally.

According to statewide data on GPS reports, children ages 5 to 9 are the most common victims, accounting for 27 percent of reports. Another quarter of victims are between ages 10 and 14, and 22 percent are between ages 1 and 4.

The most common GPS allegations in the region related to parent substance abuse, followed by parental conduct that places the child at risk, homelessness/inadequate shelter, and child and parent behavioral health concerns.

An analysis of data on substantiated child abuse and neglect cases shows that across the Commonwealth, counties that have smaller populations and are classified as rural generally have higher rates of child abuse than those counties that are larger or urban. Higher rates of abuse are also correlated with higher levels of poverty and lower median income.

“Child abuse and neglect does not just have immediate adverse effects — it is devastating and can be debilitating for victims as they get older,”Stachowiak said, “Past research has found a causal relationship between experiencing early adversity and later in life health, social, and behavioral complications. These subsequent, lasting impacts of ACEs include injury, mental and maternal health, infectious and chronic disease, risk behaviors, and lost opportunities.”

Furthermore, Stachowiak said there are societal costs.

“Poverty and abuse are closely correlated; both are also highly inter-generational,” she said. “If families, parents, and children do not unlearn learned abusive behavior with help of social services they may fall back into the cycle of poverty and abuse and may also write the fate of their future generations.”

Stachowiak said there is also an economic impact associated with child abuse and neglect. Research has shown that ACEs can negatively impact education and job opportunities.

“According to the CDC, the total lifetime economic burden associated with child abuse and neglect was approximately $428 billion in 2015 in the United States,” Stachowiak said. “However, treatment and prevention programs are estimated to have a positive economic impact, potentially eliminating some of the damaging consequences of abuse and neglect.”

Throughout this analysis, service shortages, gaps, and barriers to preventing and treating child abuse and neglect were identified. They included a high workforce turnover rate among employees of agencies providing welfare services, a lack of parental skill training, a lack of mental health services and therapy services for children, and barriers in accessing basic needs, including housing, transportation and childcare.

In order to address the challenges identified in this analysis and improve efforts to address and prevent child abuse and neglect, The Institute proposes a variety of recommendations:

• Reduce gaps and shortages in services.

• Provide training to enhance parenting skills.

• Improve awareness and understanding of child abuse.

• Explore centralization, regionalization, or coordination of child welfare services.

• Increase availability of mental health services and support.

• Expand access to treatment to lessen the harms of abuse and neglect.

• Increase support for stronger family engagement programs.

• Improve data collection and reporting.

COVID-19 effects

During primary data collection and writing this report, COVID-19 began to affect the area with school closures, mandated closures of non-life sustaining businesses, and shelter-in-home policies. The effects of these on child abuse are not yet known but all of the individuals and groups who were interviewed noted how they believe these safety precautions will cause spikes in child abuse and subsequent reports once schools re-open and normal life begins again. These effects cannot yet be quantified or verified.

All parties contacted for this study made sure to note that rates of child abuse and neglect would unquestionably be affected by COVID-19. Many noted that the rates would exponentially rise as not only are children home as school has been relegated to the home but because many parents may have lost jobs, are unable to pay bills and provide basic needs, lost childcare, are now having to home school children, have unstable transportation, and much more. Some stated that rates would rise but there would be a delay in reporting as children are not able to visit with friends, go to school and interact with teachers, or attend extracurricular activities during which mandated and permissive reporters might notice a change in a child or would be told by the child that some type of abuse had occurred.

There have been several reports on the national level that the rates of child abuse and domestic violence would be on the rise during stay at home orders and after people were furloughed or laid off. Though, again at the national level, these assumptions have been confirmed, reports from the Women’s Resource Center counter this; they have stated that their phones are not ringing when they fully expected them to do so. There could be several reasons for this but one may be if a victim is living and quarantined with their abuser they may be unable to report due to proximity to abuser and/or being provided for by abuser in these strange, trying times.

Data is sourced from the PA Department of Human Services (2018, 2020) and the CDC (2020), (National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2015), Children’s Advocacy Center of NEPA, 2020; Darkness to Light, 2015 and interviews from a variety of regional organizations

Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.

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