Reports of child abuse and neglect in Pennsylvania are rising after dropping during the pandemic, data shows

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (February 24, 2024) – After a decline during the pandemic, reports of child abuse and neglect in Pennsylvania are on the rise again — though not reaching pre-pandemic levels yet.

For its latest report, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, an advocacy group, dug into five years of data, from 2018 to 2023, to identify trends in how families move through local child welfare systems.

“As stay-home orders were lifted and children began to have more interaction with mandated reporters, the rates of reports have increased,” said Rachael Miller, the partnership’s policy director.

It appears that the state and Allegheny County are putting fewer kids in the foster care system in general and providing more family-oriented care. But racial disparities and other problems still plague a system that serves more than 200,000 children and families in Pennsylvania. Often, it’s the lack of social safety nets that put families at risk of entering and re-entering services, said Ms. Miller.

“Abuse and neglect is not just a child welfare issue, it really is a community issue,” she said. “A lot of the reasons for which families are becoming involved are really socioeconomic.”

Conflating poverty with neglect

The year 2022 saw nearly 40,000 reports of child abuse statewide, marking an increase of 1,000 reports compared to the year prior, the organization found. But the bulk of reports and resulting placement into the system aren’t happening due to physical abuse or the most severe kinds of neglect.

Rather, they can be related to truancy, homelessness or parental substance abuse, and are much more prevalent. There were more than 165,000 statewide in 2022, a 3,500 jump from 2021. Allegheny County saw a similar trend, Ms. Miller said. According to the report, the top reasons for removal are parental drug abuse, neglect, a caretaker’s inability to cope, inadequate housing and a child’s behavioral problem.

“Poverty and neglect are often confused and intertwined,” she said. “While poverty can be a risk factor, it does not always mean a child is unsafe.”

Ms. Miller pointed to the substantiation rates for suspected abuse or neglect, which remain low. In Allegheny County, only about 8% of child protective service reports, which indicate physical abuse, are substantiated. And only 20% of general protective services reports, which indicate neglect, are substantiated.

It’s important to note that abuse reports are required to be investigated, while the neglect or non-abuse reports are not. Allegheny County screens out about 58% of its neglect reports, meaning they are never given a full formal investigation.

“That can be an indication that far too many families are unnecessarily being reported to the child welfare system,” Ms. Miller said. “We see this statewide; it’s not just specific to Allegheny County. Families continue to struggle with the ability to meet basic needs, homelessness, parenting challenges or mental health and substance use.”

Heather Wilkes, policy director of the Pittsburgh-based children’s advocacy group Allies for Children, said it’s not necessarily a conscious decision on the part of mandated reporters.

“A child may go to school and doesn’t have socks on or maybe it’s a cold day and they have a light jacket on and not a winter jacket, and then a report is made,” she said. “But a lot of times, it’s just a family needing some support and not necessarily child welfare intervention.”

Researchers have attempted to disentangle poverty from neglect without success, according to the report. Data consistently shows a connection between family financial hardship and maltreatment, helping to explain why access to social safety nets often leads to a reduction in neglect and child welfare involvement, Ms. Miller said.

Black children overrepresented

The blurred line between poverty and neglect also plays a role in which families are more likely to be investigated and which children are more likely to be removed from the home. Too often, it’s Black children who are “over-surveilled, investigated and represented,” according to the report, as well as Hispanic children and children of mixed race.

The disproportionality within the child welfare system is apparent at every major decision-making point. Black families and children are more likely to be reported, investigated, placed in foster care and remain in foster care compared to any other racial group. The trend spans nationally, statewide and in Allegheny County.

“It’s not just caseworkers having explicit and implicit bias,” Ms. Miller said. “It also greatly rests in the policies that are being implemented and how they’re being required to be implemented.”

The state recognized the issues in 2021, when the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services conducted a “Racial Equity” report to establish a commitment to eliminate disparities in the system. This effort did lead to steps such as desegregating data in its annual child abuse reports. Yet three years later, formal strategies remain unclear, Ms. Miller said.

“Since then, they started convening town halls, and that’s another great step,” she said. “Beyond that, I’m not sure how they’re really analyzing current policies to determine what kind of adjustments or amendments need to be made in order to avoid some of the disparities that we’re seeing within actual practice.”

Fewer kids in foster care

The total number of children served by the foster care system has continued to decline in Allegheny County and across the state in recent years. In 2022, more than 19,000 Pennsylvania children were served in the foster care system — the lowest rate in five years.

But children who end up in the system can find themselves back in it after family reunification, something that happens to one in 10 kids.

In Allegheny County between 2021 and 2022, the number of children re-entering care jumped by a staggering 471%. Ms. Miller said she believes families may not be getting adequate services to aid that transition back home. She said she hopes the county will investigate further to understand what led to such a sharp increase.

Ms. Wilkes considers the county to be “resource rich” but agrees that the support can taper off after reunification, putting families right back where they started. Another likely contributor is ongoing staffing shortages.

“There are lots and lots of services, but if they don’t have the workers to fill those slots, the families aren’t getting the support that they need,” she said.

Growing emphasis on kinship care

The foster care population in Allegheny County has a higher rate of being placed with kin. About 51%of Allegheny County children and youth are placed with kin, versus 42% statewide.

Kin do not have to be blood-related and can be a teacher, counselor, family friend or someone the child or family identifies as support. Only when kin placement is ruled out should a child be placed in a higher level of care, and congregate care settings, such as group homes or residential placements, should be “the last option,” the report says.

This approach is something that Allegheny County is quite good at, the report shows, leading to better outcomes, including reduced trauma, for kids.

“It allows them to remain connected to their families, their communities and, most importantly, their cultures,” Ms. Miller said.

Last year, a rule from the U.S. Administration for Children and Families gave all state child welfare agencies the option of using kin-specific foster care licensing standards rather than having one licensing process for both agencies and kin.

This means that if Pennsylvania chooses to move forward with these new standards, local kin caregivers will have less hoops to jump through to care for a child.

Also promoting this kind of care in Allegheny County, Ms. Wilkes said, is the Kinship Navigator Program, which not only identifies potential kinship caregivers, but also screens them to determine their availability and appropriateness for caring for children in need of placement.

“It really decreases the burden on the caseworker,” Ms. Wilkes said.

Creating a better system

Advocates say the county has worked toward implementing more preventive measures over the years. This includes increased connections with family support centers, evidence-based home visiting and initiatives like Hello Baby, which connects new parents with resources on health care, child development and more.

But it’s also going to require deeper reform, including potentially redefining what neglect means altogether and listening to those who’ve experienced the system firsthand.

“We often look at all of these experts to come up with solutions,” Ms. Wilkes said. “We need to be looking at the people with lived experience to help us design policy solutions because they are the ones closest to the problem.”

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