Child abuse: Too common in Pennsylvania

Child abuse: Too common in Pennsylvania


By Dr. Andrew Herlich 


According to the 2015 Annual Child Protective Services Report from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, there is a slow but unsettling increase in the number of reports of abuse to the Department over the past 5 years. Does this statistic report the increase in the number of incidents or is this an increase in the number of reports filed over time?

The report for 2015 with data that was current to February 8, 2016, consists of more than 140 pages and is quite detailed in its analysis. I applaud the Department for their comprehensive work.  Forty-seven pages are detailed descriptions of events in each county that had either a near-fatal or fatal event.  Additional data demonstrates that the overwhelming number of perpetrators are unemployed by a margin of 60 percent in fatal and near fatal events.  A similar overwhelming number, 87 percent of perpetrators have no more than a high school diploma.

The report’s data horrified me. Responsible for sixty-two percent of the fatalities and 73 percent of the near fatalities were parents of the children.  Most of these came from a single parent family with or without a significant other (paramour in the report’s parlance) that may be party to the abuse. By a factor of 4.5 to 1, the reports showed serious bodily harm versus serious neglect.  Of the $1.769 billion dollars spent on child welfare, $52.587 million was spent on investigations. It is a sad situation such a vast sum of money needed to spent for legal investigation of child harm.

What is lurking in the background of this report are the bruises, the psychological abuse, the neglect that doesn’t get reported because there are too many of these “near misses” to the data.  No family would voluntarily report that they are neglecting or harming their children.  The abuse or neglect is much greater than this comprehensive report could ever generate.  Who is going to speak for the one week old baby that was shaken to the point of brain hemorrhage and death?  Who is going to make sure that the single 17 year old mother of a one month old has sufficient support services to reduce the risk of abuse? Furthermore, what about the child survivors of physical or psychological abuse?  Should there be legislation to help them heal their wounds irrespective of the time when the abuse occurred?  Should the individuals who saw abuses be castigated for reporting it such as Mike McQueary an Assistant Football Coach at Penn State?

Consequently, when a bill is proposed to retroactively investigate and possibly punish prior abusers for adult victims up to the age of 50, the bill never gets moved. Why does this happen?  Opponents to the bill protested due to concerns that private sector abusers such as those from religious school or religious backgrounds would be treated differently than the public sector abusers.  The bill that overwhelmingly passed in the House in April of this year was changed in the Senate and referred back to the House and then died due to inaction.  Now, abusers, who were hiding behind the shield of time, are given essentially a free pass to hide or to possibly abuse again.  We should be ashamed as a society for spending more time wordsmithing the legislation rather than enacting it.  Fairness to the perpetrators was the greater concern rather than the victims of child abuse irrespective of age.

I see abuse and neglect all too often as a physician who treats children with burns.  Caregivers who immerse infants or children in scalding water is an example of abuse.  Parents who permit their children to get too close to family camp fires are another example of these burns of neglect.  There are truly accidental burns which are no less scaring internally as well as externally.  Nevertheless, we need to assure that these children who survive these physical and emotional scars get all of the care that they deserve.

In order to improve the data in the Annual Child Protective Services Report, we need to provide for societal changes.  We need to ensure that there are fewer single parent homes.  We need to incentivize adolescents to finish high school and get more advanced vocational or educational training.  We must make every effort to increase employment.  We need to make sure that child abusers do not abuse again.  We need to ensure that neglecting children is no less of a problem than child abuse.  Society has to speak for and protect these innocent victims and not portray that the perpetrators as the victims.  If the perpetrators were victims themselves in the past, then we need to address that issue as well.