It's a bitter cold day in January 2010, and Kayla Marie Taschler, about a month shy of her first birthday, is strapped into a car seat in front of a blaring television set on the third floor of a Palmerton house. Her diaper is dirty, and she cries from hunger and thirst. It's been at least 16 hours since she last tasted food or felt the cool trickle of water on her tongue. Her parents sit two floors away, smoking marijuana, as Kayla dies.
Kayla, whose final hours were reconstructed in court testimony and police documents, was just one small victim among 3,656 substantiated cases of child abuse reported to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare in 2010.
By 2011, the figure had dipped by 6.78 percent to 3,408 cases, or a rate of 1.2 cases per thousand children, the lowest in more than eight years. But by last year, the number had again begun to climb, reaching 3,565, or a rate of 1.3 cases per thousand. They include 33 fatalities, and 48 near-fatalities.
In Carbon County, the rate of substantiated abuse cases rose from 1.2 per thousand to 1.4 between 2011 and 2012. In Schuylkill, the rate was higher than the state average, but stayed at 1.9 per thousand in both years. Monroe County saw its rate climb from 1.3 per thousand to 1.5.
In 2012, DPW noted 26,664 cases of suspected abuse. That's up 9 percent over 2011, and marks the highest number of such reports since DPW began tracking them in 1973.
WHY THE INCREASE?
Acting DPW Secretary Beverly Mackereth, in a letter to Pennsylvania Child Advocates called the jump an "unprecedented increase" of suspected child abuse reports.
"This marks 2012 as the year Pennsylvania received more reports of suspected child abuse than any other year on record," she wrote.
According to a report released May 29 by the advocacy group, Protect Our Children Committee, while Mackereth didn't speculate as to the exact reasons for the significant increase, she wrote that, "in Pennsylvania there has been a surge in awareness of and conversations about child abuse."
That fits with the perspective offered by Teresa Olsen, program director of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Suspected Child Abuse & Neglect arm. She believes the increase is due to greater awareness and better reporting.
"The numbers have gone up because there is more awareness of the prevalence of child abuse through high profile cases like (convicted child molester Jerry) Sandusky. The other side of this is that more mandated reporters are receiving training on recognizing and reporting suspected child abuse," she says.
Mandated reporters those who are required by law to report suspected child abuse include social workers; teachers, principals, and other school personnel; physicians, nurses, and other health-care workers; counselors, therapists, and other mental health professionals; child care providers; medical examiners or coroners; and law enforcement officers.
But while there has been an uptick in the numbers of reported cases, too many remain hidden.
"It's likely that all forms of child abuse are underreported, especially sexual abuse," Olsen says.
Last year, 54 percent of all substantiated child abuse reports involved sexual abuse, POCC says.
WHO'S HURTING THE KIDS?
According to DPW's 2012 Annual Child Abuse Report, fathers were most often the perpetrators, followed by mothers, followed by other family members. Paramours were next, followed by household members, day care staff, babysitters, and stepparents. Residential facility staff, legal guardians, foster parents, school staff, ex-parents and unknown people rounded out the list, each held responsible for fewer than 50 substantiated cases.
However, "The highest risk factor for a child dying of abuse is an unrelated male in a caretaking role (Mom's boyfriend)," Olsen says. "Parents need to be very, very careful in choosing who will take care of their child when a baby sitter is needed."
Stopping abuse before it starts is crucial.
"There has been much research on infant brain development and the impact of toxic stress on the developing brain. We now know that what happens in those first few years of life really matters and that trauma suffered by a child abuse, witnessing violence, neglect places him or her at increased risk of physical and mental health problems as an adult," Olsen says. "As more and more people become aware of these facts, I hope that all parents will do their share of homework before they become parents.
"The best scenario is to prevent abuse from ever happening (as opposed to intervention and treatment after abuse has occurred). To have the best outcomes for children, it starts with a wanted, hopefully planned, pregnancy along with prenatal care," she says.
She cites the "five protective factors" identified by the Center for the Study of Social Policy. When these factors are "present and robust in a family, the likelihood of child abuse and neglect diminish," she says.
They are: Social and emotional competence in children (a child's ability to interact positively with others and communicate his/her emotions effectively); knowledge of parenting and child development (parents need accurate information about raising young children and the appropriate expectations for their behavior); social connections (friends, family members, neighbors and other members of a community who provide emotional support and concrete assistance are invaluable to parents); concrete support in times of need (families need financial security to cover day-to-day expenses and unexpected costs that come up from time to time); and parental resilience (the ability to cope and bounce back from all types of challenges).
Jim Hmurovich, president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America, says the three most effective strategies are home visitation services, like Healthy Families America, which help parents establish life-long relationships with their child and which help parents understand the most effective parenting skills, child development issues and how to teach children respect for other children; parent education services, which allows parents to learn from each other and to understand how to reduce stress (which often is a precursor to some abuse); and child sexual abuse prevention programs that focus on an adult's responsibility to protect a child, limiting adult-child one-to-one time, and helping parents speak with their child about their bodies using correct anatomical terms.
How can friends, families and neighbors help parents avoid lashing out at their children in frustration?
"Take the time to understand what precipitates abuse," Hmurovich says. "Offer parents an opportunity to get some free time away from the children by offering to watch the children for them for a few hours. Simply take the time ... sometimes parents need to know that being overwhelmed is something every parent goes through. Sometimes parents need to know that someone else cares and that they are not alone. Friends and neighbors should never underestimate the importance of 'taking the time,'" he says.
The bottom line, Olsen says, is that "everyone has a role in keeping kids safe. Raising happy, healthy children is good for families, for neighborhoods and for communities."