By Rachel Berger, MD, MPH, chief, Child Advocacy Center
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. I look forward to this month each year, both because it means that spring is finally here, and because I am often provided with opportunities to raise awareness about child abuse.
The past year has been an important one for vulnerable children in our community. On January 1, 2015, major changes to the child abuse laws in Pennsylvania went into effect. These laws were a direct result of the recommendations made by the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection, a task force which was established, in large part, due to the Jerry Sandusky case and the inadequacies in the child protection system that this case brought to light. The new legislation has resulted in a wide range of changes to the Pennsylvania child abuse laws, including:
- Updates to the definition of physical abuse
- Expansion of the groups of adults who are considered mandated reporters
- Establishment of a statewide database/central register of reports of abuse and neglect
A summary of these new laws can be found at http://keepkidssafe.pa.gov/index.htm.
While these new laws will take some time to adjust and to incorporate into daily practices for Child Protective Services, mandated reporters, and others, they are a significant step forward in our goal of protecting Pennsylvania’s children from child abuse and neglect.
There has also been progress nationally. Last year, at this time, the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities had met for the first time. According to a report from the United States Government Accountability Office, at least 1,500 children and perhaps as many as 3,000 children, die every year as a result of abuse or neglect. By comparison, the American Cancer Society reports that about 1,250 children younger than 15 years old are expected to die from cancer in 2015. Unlike treatment for cancer, which has greatly improved childhood survival over the past 20 years, there has been little, if any decrease over the 20 years, in the number of children dying from child abuse and neglect. In the past year, the Commission has met in Texas, Florida, Michigan, Colorado, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Oregon and has heard testimony from physicians, lawyers, child protective services workers, parents, and others. The ultimate goal of the Commission will be to develop policy recommendations for 2016.
Locally, the physicians, social workers, and nurses at the Child Advocacy Center at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC have, unfortunately, had a busy year.
- Our team of forensic specialists interviewed over 600 children who may be victims of sexual or physical abuse.
- Our Child Protection team evaluated just under 500 children who were admitted to Children’s with concerns for abuse or neglect, including broken bones, brain injuries, toxic ingestions, and abdominal injuries.
- Our physicians, nurse practitioners, and nurses evaluated close to 1,500 children in the ARCH (Advocacy Resources for Children) outpatient clinic, which is focused on providing primary care to children in foster care in the community, providing follow-up for children who have recently been admitted to the hospital for child abuse or neglect, and performing physical exams on children in the county who are entering or leaving foster care or moving between foster homes.
In addition, we have been preparing for the end of the month, when we will host the 10th annual Pittsburgh Conference on Child Maltreatment. More than 15 counties in Pennsylvania participate in this conference with participants including lawyers, child welfare workers, medical professionals, therapists, and those involved in the provision of services to children in the child welfare system. This year, we have received funding from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to provide scholarships to cover the registration costs for several members of our multidisciplinary team. This funding has also allowed us to improve our peer review process, purchase digital cameras to improve our photo documentation of injuries, and provide interpretation services and transportation for the families we serve.
When I talk with friends, family, and neighbors about what I do, they often ask how they can help support children in our community who are at the highest risk of abuse and neglect or who are already victims. There are many ways you can make a difference in the lives of children in our community, such as:
- Volunteer at one of the many nonprofits in our county that serve these children and their families.
- Encourage your state legislators to ensure that the Commonwealth provides sufficient funding to organizations that serve children who are victims of abuse or neglect.
- Donate to one of the many organizations that provide services for at-risk children and families.
Perhaps most important are the things you can do every day in your community:
- Volunteer to help a neighbor who is overwhelmed by the stresses of parenting.
- Be available when a friend or colleague needs someone to listen and you can provide a few words of encouragement.
- Give support to a stranger in the grocery store who seems to be having a difficult parenting day.
A colleague once told me that the best piece of parenting advice she ever got was to take a photo of her child whenever she found herself reaching the end of her patience. The time it takes to stop and take a photo is enough time to bring an adult’s stress level down. And from looking at a photo of a screaming, out of control toddler, is enough to make any adult smile. I have followed this advice a few times myself and I can tell you that it works. And perhaps, it makes it less likely that the parent on that day will lose his or her patience with a young child. This is how we can all help support children in our community every day.
Earlier this month, Pittsburgh City Councilwomen, Theresa Kail-Smith and Darlene Harris, presented a proclamation commending the Child Advocacy Center. In addition to recognizing the tremendous work the center does, the proclamation recognized the staff for their dedication serving children and families in our communities. It also declared April 2015 to be Child Abuse Prevention Month in the City of Pittsburgh.
To learn more about the Child Advocacy Center at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, please visit www.chp.edu/cac and consider attending the 10th Annual Child Maltreatment Conference, which will be held April 23-24, 2015.