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HARRISBURG – Child abuse claimed at least 46 lives in Pennsylvania last year, a five-year high, according to data released Tuesday by the Department of Human Services.

The death toll wasn’t the only sobering number.

Seventy-nine children were victims of such terrible abuse that even though they survived the trauma, the state characterized their cases as “near fatalities.”

The number of children who died from abuse increased by 35 percent from 2015 and the number who nearly died from abuse increased 55 percent.

On both fronts, advocates said they can’t recall a worse year.

While the state legislature created a special task force to suggest changes in the law to help deal with child protection, “it doesn’t look like we are making progress” said Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

The child death numbers are “shockingly high,” he said.

DePasquale’s office is in the midst of a review of 13 county child protection offices to see if there are shortcomings that are repeated across the state and potentially come up with recommendations to fix them.

Cambria County is among those being studied.

“These statistics are clear indications that we have much more work to do together to protect Pennsylvania’s youngest and most vulnerable residents from harm and to give them the innocent childhood they deserve,” said Angela Liddle, president and chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance.

Child protective services agencies received more than 12.5 calls a day in 2016 with 44,359 cases of suspected child abuse reported to them. Of those, only 1 in 10 reports was substantiated. The protective services caseworkers were able to document that abuse occurred in 4,597 cases.

Five years ago, when the state got 24,615 reports of child abuse, caseworkers were able to substantiate 1 in 7 allegations.

DePasquale launched his review after audits in counties found that child protection agencies were swamped with work as changes in state law created the flood of new reports at a time when the heroin and opioid crisis further strained the system.

Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice said the fact that the state is substantiating abuse at a lower rate than it did before the laws were changed raise questions that the state needs to “dig deeper” to answer.

“The system is overwhelmed” as staffing levels haven’t kept pace with the increased work, she said.

The rate at which abuse was documented varied dramatically across the state.

In Cambria County, there 488 reports of suspected abuse, but only 26 cases substantiated. Mercer County had a similar number of reports 459, but substantiated more than twice as many – with 64. Northumberland County also had 460 reports of suspected abuse and found substantial evidence in 60 cases.

Montour County received 75 complaints about suspected abuse and substantiated just one. Cameron County, with 24 complaints of suspected abuse was the only other county in Pennsylvania with just one substantiated case of child abuse.

Unsubstantiated allegations may not all be wastes of time, said Haven Evans, director of training for the Family Support Alliance. County workers may determine that the mistreatment of the child doesn’t seem like abuse, but decide that the family can benefit from other services, Evans said. That programming would be optional with no way to force the parents to comply.

The report is frustrating to advocates who have been pushing to get the state to provide more information, and do so more quickly, Palm said. Some of the data in the report clearly hints that the state’s opioid crisis is devastating families and contributing to abuse, she said. But, the report makes no clear link to the drug crisis, and coming at the start of the fifth month of this year, what data is provided is starting to feel stale, she said.

Palm said the report should be a way to help identify trends so that it’s not just information about historic abuse but a means to help prevent other children from suffering abuse.

“It’s a challenge,” she said. “We get the information in dribs and drabs and we don’t know enough about what’s going on beyond these numbers.”

While the state has dramatically increased the number and types of people who are required by law to report suspected abuse, there were still a sizable chunk of reports from people who intervened on their own.

“That’s a glimmer of hope,” Liddle said.

The state received more than 8,000 reports of suspected abuse from people who voluntarily contacted child protective services. A promising finding of the state findings is that those reports were more often substantiated than reports from a lot of mandated reporters, Liddle said.

“Thank God for those 8,000 people,” she said. “Or we may have had even more deaths.”

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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