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New law spurs sharp increase in child abuse investigations

A new state law has led to a doubling of reports of suspected child abuse in Lancaster County this year.

Many of those reports have turned out to be unfounded, but the number of substantiated cases appears to be running about 20 percent ahead of last year.

Through Aug. 15, investigators substantiated 83 cases of abuse, up from 69 cases for the same period in 2014, according to the Lancaster County Children & Youth Agency.

Substantiated cases represent only a small fraction of the total reports received. And those reports have soared under a new law that carries criminal penalties for anyone who regularly works with children and fails to report a suspected case of abuse directly to police, a special state hotline or to child welfare authorities.

“If you suspect abuse you need to call, and that’s what people are doing,” said Crystal Natan, Children & Youth’s executive director. “They don’t want to take a risk.”

More than expected

Natan said she was braced for a 25 to 30 percent increase in reports of suspected abuse after the new law took effect Jan. 1.

Instead, the number of reports quickly doubled, and the pace hasn’t let up. Through September, the county received 1,733 reports of suspected abuse, up from 855 for the same period in 2014.

“This is really our new normal,” Natan said. “We’re nine months into the year and our numbers really haven’t gone down.”

Investigators are required to visit a child within 24 hours of receiving a report, and to complete an investigation in 60 days.

The growing volume of reports prompted an increase in local caseworkers this spring, Natan said, and a request for even more staff next year to ensure that all cases are investigated quickly and thoroughly.

Other help for families

Although the number of substantiated cases of abuse has risen much less than the number of reports, Natan said investigations sometimes lead to other improvements for a child, even when no abuse is found.

That’s because investigators may discover issues such as substance abuse, mental illness or domestic violence in the child’s household.

And that can lead to monitoring of a risky situation, or referrals for counseling or other services that might help stabilize a family and reduce the likelihood of abuse or neglect in the future.

“Just because something’s unfounded doesn’t mean that we don’t react or respond or find services,” Natan said.

Background checks

The reporting requirement was part of a package of child-protection measures that lawmakers passed in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal at Penn State University.

The package also contained provisions requiring child abuse background checks for a much broader group of people who work or volunteer with children.

Those applications for clearances are coming in at more than twice the rate as last year. Through June 30, there were 682,500 requests for clearances statewide, or about 113,750 per month, according to the Department of Human Services. That compared with 587,545 — or 49,000 a month — for all of 2014.

Of those requesting clearances during the first half of the year, 964 turned out to have been named as perpetrators in child abuse reports. That compared with 1,118 such “hits” for all of 2014.

Kait Gillis, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, said the number of reports of suspected child abuse totaled 21,988 statewide from Jan. 1 through June 30, or nearly 40 percent more than the same period last year.

About 11 percent of the reports were substantiated, indicating the total will be up significantly for the year.

For all of 2014, the state received 29,273 reports of suspected abuse, and 11 percent — or 3,340 — were substantiated, according to the DHS annual report.


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