Lawmakers need to prioritize child-abuse epidemic

An article in Tuesday’s Altoona Mirror “State sees jump in child abuse cases”— a big jump — included mention of Pennsylvania lawmakers’ positive — albeit reactive, rather than proactive — efforts to pass legislation responding to headline-making abuse cases.

Yet sooner, rather than later, in this pandemic era, there needs to be a much more intense and wide-ranging focus by the General Assembly — and, actually, society in general — on all aspects of the abuse problem than what the commonwealth heretofore has witnessed.

Does one solution include tougher penalties, including a tougher potential prison ramification? That is something district attorneys, judges, health professionals and others need to help lawmakers sort out.

It is hard to dispute that a big part of the blame for the large increase in fatal or near-fatal abuse cases in 2020 was the coronavirus pandemic.

Most Pennsylvania children did not have access to classroom learning and, thus, spent much more time at home, in many cases with parents dealing with intense pressures and stresses, including challenging, destructive economic circumstances.

Stress — that was the second-most-serious reality of 2020, a close second only to COVID-19 itself. Meanwhile, the opioid epidemic remained a fatal bogeyman amid the pandemic’s horrific, all-encompassing bad scene — and, like COVID-19, it does not seem destined to be a “past malady” or conquered horror anytime soon.

In the article in question, that constraining force or influence, stress, did not receive — and really could not receive — the kind of attention and analysis that it ultimately deserves by those who put the 2020 abuse statistics under a proverbial microscope.

Those charged with conducting such analyses will need to look deep beneath the numbers of cases and classification of cases recorded.

Stresses within the home, brought about or exacerbated by the pandemic, were the reason why the number of children who died due to child abuse or neglect in Pennsylvania last year jumped more than 40%, according to just-released data.

That 73 fatal cases of child abuse were recorded last year, as well as 115 cases classified as near fatalities, is tragic, but it is necessary also to point out that the pandemic was not really an issue for the first two, perhaps, three months of the year.

So the abuse-case statistics probably are more reflective of a nine- or 10-month time period rather than 12 months.

“So much of what’s played out is not a shock,” according to Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice, who was quoted in Tuesday’s article. She described the new statistics as “mind-numbing.”

By comparison, there were 51 abuse deaths and 93 near-fatal abuse cases in 2019.

Also quoted on Tuesday was Jon Rubin, deputy secretary in the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services’ Office of Children, Youth and Families, who reported commendably that “we have asked our child fatality trend analysis team to look closely not only at the 2020 data, but at the unique differences in circumstances due to the pandemic.”

A point that cannot get enough emphasis is that lawmakers need to reach out much more aggressively beyond their legislative chambers for all available advice on how to address the abuse problem.

That will require extensive input from psychiatrists, psychologists, law enforcement personnel, human service agencies and other resources.

Although delayed, such a mobilization is not too late.


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