Child abuse and neglect fatalities rose locally in 2020

Written by on April 15, 2021

Child abuse and neglect fatalities rose locally in 2020

By Chloe Nouvelle

April 15, 2021

Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

Reports of child abuse are down in Lehigh County. The decline in referrals to the county’s Children and Youth Services started last March when the pandemic forced Pennsylvania to shutter its schools. 

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But fatalities linked to child abuse and neglect rose last year. Indeed, in 2020, Lehigh County had five child fatalities that were a result of abuse or neglect. 

Four of those were infants. 

That’s the highest number of deaths in Lehigh County in the last five years, based on state figures. 

A direct connection between the rise in deaths last year and the pandemic is not clear, says Paula Griffin, the county’s director of Children and Youth Services.

“It’s really hard to say. It’s hard to know,” she says. 

But Griffin says the number of referrals, the reported cases of abuse and neglect, dropped by roughly 2,000 in 2020 compared with the year before.

“When the pandemic first began last March, we saw a steady decline in referrals to our agency because kids were not in school. And schools are one of our largest referral sources,” Griffin says. 

And that drop wasn’t unique to Lehigh County. 

Jennie Noll, a professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the Pennsylvania State University and director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network, says with a lot kids of out of contact with “common reporters” like teachers and physicians, child abuse and neglect reporting rates generally went down across the nation. 

But, Noll says, that doesn’t mean abuse wasn’t happening. 

“It just means we might not be seeing it. It might not be reported,” she says. 

She has spoken with county social services officials across the state who say that the cases that make it to the child welfare system now tend to be more severe.

“And we actually see cases of infant death and cases of severe abuse and neglect resulting in death even on the rise during COVID,” Noll says. 

According to public data from the state as of September 30, Northampton County has had no child fatalities due to abuse or neglect. 

WLVR is currently requesting the Northampton County’s figures from October 1 to the end of 2020 to get the full picture of what happened there last year.

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