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Pandemic masks ongoing child abuse crisis as cases plummet

LANSFORD, Pa. • Ava Lerario lived in a home marked by both love and chaos, even before the walls of the pandemic started closing in on her fractured family.

Sandwiched between two brothers, the 9-year-old was her father's princess, and she loved to snuggle up with her mom to read. She sometimes lugged her favorite stuffed animals all the way to the bus stop, where she never hesitated to share toys or books, or befriend a new or lonely kid.

But neighbors noticed she and her brothers didn't play outside. Protective services visited their home at least twice, in 2019, over reports of potential abuse of Ava's younger brother. Her father, Marc Lerario, had an explosive temper. Her mother, Ashley Belson, struggled with drug addiction and considered leaving him.

But she didn't dare take Ava. If she left with his favorite — the one who shared his strawberry blond hair and could calm him with a smile — Ashley feared he'd kill her.

In the end, Ashley wasn't the only one who died.

'Consequences for everyone'

An Associated Press analysis of state data reveals that the coronavirus pandemic has ripped away several systemic safety nets for millions of Americans — many of them children like Ava. It found that child abuse reports, investigations, substantiated allegations and interventions have dropped at a staggering rate, increasing risks for the most vulnerable of families in the U.S.

In the AP's analysis, it found more than 400,000 fewer child welfare concerns reported during the pandemic and 200,000 fewer child abuse and neglect investigations and assessments compared with the same time period of 2019. That represents a national total decrease of 18% in both total reports and investigations.

The AP requested public records from all 50 state child welfare agencies and analyzed more than a dozen indicators in 36 states, though not every state supplied data for total reports or investigations. The analysis compared the first nine months of the pandemic — March to November 2020 — with the same time period from the two previous years.

And there are signs in a number of states that suggest officials are dealing with more urgent and complex cases during the pandemic, according to the analysis, though most child welfare agencies didn't provide AP thorough data on severity.

A loss in reports means greater potential for harm because "there has not all of the sudden been a cure for child abuse and neglect," said Amy Harfeld, an expert in child abuse deaths with the Children's Advocacy Institute.

"Children who are experiencing abuse or neglect at home are only coming to the attention of CPS much further down the road than they normally would," Harfeld said. "When families aren't getting what they need, there are consequences for everyone."

'We need another way'

With many children out of the public eye, the U.S. system of relying on teachers, police and doctors to report potential abuse and neglect to Child Protective Services — known by various names across states — has been failing. During the pandemic, it became too late for many: the diabetic 15-year-old Wisconsin girl who died of medical complications despite 16 CPS reports in her lifetime, the 8-year-old Nevada boy who mistakenly drank a chemical substance stored in a soda bottle, the Phoenix teen beaten by his father with a bat.

School personnel are the top reporters of child abuse; they're the most important eyes and ears for child welfare agencies across states. Teachers, administrators, counselors, coaches, nurses and other adults working in school settings are trained to identify warning signs and mandated by law to report any potential issues of child abuse or neglect.

The AP found that child abuse and neglect reports from school sources fell sharply during the pandemic as the U.S. pivoted to online learning — by 59%. For comparison, there was a 4% decline of reports nationally from nonschool reporter sources. In many states, school reports remained below pre-pandemic numbers even when in-person instruction resumed in some fashion.

"The pandemic and the resulting isolation reminds us that we cannot rely solely on a system that only responds after a child is hurt," said Kurt Heisler, who oversaw the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System during the Obama administration. "What happens when we don't have mandated reporters in front of children? It reminds us that we need another way to support and reach these families."

'She was in pain'

The issue has affected other parts of the world, too, as Japan saw a record number of child abuse victims and the U.K. reported a significant increase in the number of maltreatment-suspected deaths and serious injuries.

Ava's school, Panther Valley Elementary School in Nesquehoning, closed March 13. Ava lost her refuge, where she won Student of the Month honors every year and was known for singing and dancing her heart out during school band concerts. As the pandemic spread, few people understood the tumult inside the family's home in the former coal mining town of Lansford.

School wasn't a priority for the family then. The youngest, Marc Lerario Jr., has a severe form of autism, which made learning difficult even in the best of circumstances. Ashley, the breadwinner, lost her waitressing job as her restaurant shuttered amid coronavirus restrictions. The family applied for food stamps and relied on savings, said older brother, Brian Belson, now 17.

Before the pandemic, Marc Lerario seemed to be turning a corner, despite his record of a dozen assault charges — including domestic violence incidents against Ashley. He quit smoking and drinking, worked out, and watched movies or played video games with the family, Belson said. But in April 2020, Marc's grandmother died of COVID-19 at a nursing home outside Philadelphia. He was hours away and never got to say goodbye, and he spiraled into depression.

That month, when the first economic stimulus checks came through, Patti Burt prayed the financial lifeline would ease some of the burdens her daughter, Ashley, was likely facing: "I said, 'God, I hope they're happy.' I knew inside that Ashley was not happy, she was in pain."

Ashley's drug use escalated while Marc, unmedicated for bipolar disorder, slipped into extreme bouts of paranoia. School officials say it doesn't appear Ava ever logged on for virtual school.

And on May 26, Ava's body was found nestled in her fluffy bedding at home. Police say her father put a bullet in her head while she slept. Officials say he also fatally shot Ashley, his partner of more than a decade, and then himself. Ashley was found with high levels of meth in her system on a blowup mattress in the living room that Marc set up to stand guard against the invisible monsters of his paranoia, authorities said.

Ava's brothers were home that morning and found the bodies.

'We had everything in place'

Despite Marc Lerario's criminal record, the prior report on child welfare in the home, and the children's absence from remote learning, no red flags were raised to law enforcement or other officials.

Principal Robert Palazzo knew that in a high-poverty area, nearly everyone would be affected by the pandemic. He worried for teachers, some of whom work second jobs, and students in the online-only model. Palazzo describes a survivalist mentality - teachers and others helped who they could first.

Nearly a quarter of families didn't participate in virtual school, so it wasn't unusual that even enthusiastic, high-achieving learners like Ava might never log in to the district's platforms, he said. Some parents, frustrated by technology and access issues, chose to go it alone, and Palazzo didn't blame them. The usual truancy rules, in which the school must report to CPS any unexplained absence of more than six consecutive days, didn't apply based on new state guidelines. Palazzo said the school called all 550 students at the start and made at least five attempts to reach Ava's family about absences, via a letter, phone calls and email.

"We had everything in place that we should have had in place," Palazzo said. "When we close the school doors, it changes everything."

Months before the pandemic, the family was reported in two calls to CPS on the same October 2019 day. The reports involved injuries to the youngest child, Marc Jr. A social worker interviewed Junior at school with a teacher present, and abuse was denied in two home visits. It's not clear whether the allegations were substantiated, but older brother Brian said his parents didn't hurt Junior.

Grappling with the 'what-ifs'

Pennsylvania's Office of Children, Youth, and Families has acknowledged missteps by authorities in Ava's case. Social workers weren't notified of Ava's death, with officials learning instead from a Facebook post. The agency noted in a report that it didn't know there were guns in the home or about any criminal history. Erin James, office spokeswoman, declined to answer specific questions about Ava's case, citing privacy laws.

A former school psychologist, Palazzo said he has long advocated for Carbon County to adopt the Handle with Care protocols, a national initiative that prompts law enforcement to notify the school if police are called to a family's home. He said he doesn't believe anyone at his school knew about the child welfare report involving Ava's family, and he's unaware of any intervention on his campus, as Junior attended a different school. He believes teachers could have reached out to Ava if they knew that police or CPS had investigated her family.

Palazzo said he and the rest of the school grapple with the what-ifs: If school had been open, would there have been a chance to save Ava? That motivated school officials to reopen the doors to students as soon as possible.

"We want all kids to have access to school, not only because of reading and math, but because of well-being, because of access to another positive adult in their life," Palazzo said.

AP's analysis suggests officials may be dealing with more severe cases of child abuse in several states, based on an assessment of priority response times, families that have previously been involved with CPS, and deaths and serious injuries.

For example, although Maryland investigated far fewer child abuse reports during the pandemic, the state saw about 1,500 more reports involving prior victims than in March through September the previous year. Nebraska, which also had significantly fewer child abuse and neglect reports during the pandemic, had dozens more investigations that required a 24-hour response — assigned to the most urgent priority cases — than in 2019.

Louisiana also acknowledged a decrease in reports and increase in severity, noting the state saw more domestic violence involving weapons, psychiatric issues with caregivers, and serious injuries.

"We serve some of the most vulnerable families in Louisiana, and we know they were hit particularly hard by the pandemic," said Rhenda Hodnett, assistant secretary of child welfare at the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services.

Many states said the number of reports have recovered some, however slowly, over the past year, but that it is too soon to draw conclusions about the ongoing pandemic's effects on child welfare. Colorado rejected the notion that fewer reports prove unreported abuse.

"These decreases do not tell us that child abuse and neglect is going unreported," said Minna Castillo Cohen, director of Colorado's Office of Children, Youth and Families. "It's possible that families and communities came together and weathered this storm together."

'A child in need'

AP's analysis showed that despite far fewer child abuse reports and school referrals, the percentage of reports accepted for further investigation and assessment largely remained steady during the pandemic. This suggests that while the work of social workers was consistent, there are likely untold cases of abuse going unreported, with at-risk children remaining invisible to the system without the attention of an in-person school environment, experts and some state officials said.

Much of a social worker's typical caseload involves minor maltreatments that more often signal poverty and a lack of resources over nefarious parenting, making Child Protective Services crucial for support of vulnerable families. Within the system, state laws and processes vary widely, making child abuse trends notoriously difficult to track even in normal times. Experts aren't sure how the loss in child abuse reports during the pandemic can or will be recovered.

Critics say teachers can overreport minor or unsubstantiated cases that don't meet the legal definition of abuse, confusing poverty with neglect as heightened by racial and other biases, and clogging up the system. But AP's analysis shows the rate of substantiated cases of abuse also generally remained steady among completed investigations between 2018 and 2020, even with a diminishing number of teacher referrals.

"Even if teachers were saying 'I'm going to report because I think this child seems dirty,' we do that so the child can get the attention and some intervention can happen," said Laurel Thompson, of the School Social Work Association of America and the retired director of student services for Florida's Broward County Public Schools, one of the country's largest districts. "Whether it's abuse or neglect or poverty, it is still a child in need."

Lansford police Chief Jack Soberick was the first to respond to the scene when Ava died. The lawn was mowed, the house was clean, and the refrigerator had food.

"I don't believe this would have happened this way if not for the pandemic pushing him beyond the brink," Soberick said of Marc Lerario. "This is a horrific, horrible main example, but I'm sure similar things to a lesser degree happened not just in Carbon County — throughout Pennsylvania and the nation."

Soberick said the police department was not aware of Lerario's warrants, which didn't appear in federal tracking databases. In 2018, he was charged with choking Ashley in Lansford, but she failed to appear at the court hearing and the charges were dropped. Among earlier arrests: four assault charges at a child's birthday party in New Jersey in 2009, an assault charge in Maryland against Ashley in 2015, and a guilty plea to assaulting his mother in 2013 in Philadelphia. His mother did not want to comment for this story.

'A thousand suns'

Ava's death was one of 105 child fatalities investigated for child abuse in Pennsylvania in 2020; that's 11 more than in 2019. Other states that saw a significant increase in child deaths with suspected maltreatment include Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Texas, Maryland and Arizona, according to AP's analysis. Pennsylvania also had 113 more near fatalities — a 67% increase in injuries so serious that they left the child hospitalized in serious or critical condition.

In state officials' report about Ava's death, they suggest social workers do criminal background checks upfront when assessing families reported to them, and they urged schools to track attendance during the pandemic to report unresponsive parents for welfare checks.

Ava never had the chance to return to school. Instead, she's now memorialized in a cafeteria mural, quoting her characteristic enthusiasm: "It's like a thousand suns out here."

The state's fatality review said: "When the victim child was in school, she did have a good relationship with the staff and did reach out for help in the past. If she were in school, that may have continued."

Deadly breach could delay decisions about Capitol fencing

WASHINGTON • The latest deadly breach of the Capitol's perimeter could delay the gradual reopening of the building's grounds to the public just as lawmakers were eyeing a return to more normal security measures following the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Capitol Police officer William "Billy" Evans, an 18-year veteran of the force, was killed Friday when a man rammed his car into a barrier outside the Senate side of the building. The driver, identified as 25-year-old Noah Green, was shot and killed after he ran his car into Evans and another officer, got out and lunged at police with a knife.

The deaths came less than two weeks after the Capitol Police removed an outer fence that had temporarily cut off a wide swath of the area to cars and pedestrians, blocking major traffic arteries that cross the city. The fencing had been erected to secure the Capitol after the violent mob of of then-President Donald Trump's supporters attacked the building Jan. 6., interrupting the certification of President Joe Biden's victory. The violence lead to the deaths of five people, including a Capitol Police officer.

Police, who took the brunt of the assaults that day, have left intact a second ring of fencing around the inner perimeter of the Capitol as they struggle to figure out how to best protect the building and those who work inside it. That tall, dark fencing — parts of it covered in razor wire until just recently -- is still a stark symbol of the fear many in the Capitol felt after the mob laid siege two months ago.

Lawmakers have almost universally loathed the fencing, saying the seat of American democracy was meant to be open to the people, even if there was always going to be a threat.

But after Friday's attack, some said they needed to procced with caution.

"It's an eyesore, it sucks," Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio said about the fencing. "Nobody wants that there. But the question is, is the environment safe enough to be able to take it down? In the meantime, maybe that fence can prevent some of these things from happening."

Ryan, chairman of a House spending committee that oversees security and the Capitol, stressed that no decisions had been made, and that lawmakers would be "reviewing everything" after the latest deadly incident. His committee and others are looking at not only the fence but at the staffing, structure, and intelligence capabilities of the Capitol Police.

"The scab got ripped off again here today," Ryan said. "So we've got to figure this out."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement Saturday that Evans' death "has only added to the need to address security at the Capitol in a comprehensive way" after the January breach. Along with Ryan's House panel, two Senate committees have been looking into what changes need to be made.

Despite the fencing, Friday's breach happened inside the perimeter. The driver slipped through a gate that had opened to allow traffic in and out of the Capitol and rammed a barrier that had protected the building long before Jan. 6. And there was no evidence that Green's actions were in any way related to the insurrection.

Still, it was a reminder that there is always a target on one of the country's most visible public buildings, especially as political tensions have risen since the insurrection and there has been broad public scrutiny of the security failures that day.

"This may just cause everybody to pump the brakes a bit on taking the fence down entirely because of the sense of security that it provides us," said Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton of Virginia, another member of the spending panel that oversees the legislative branch.

As a lawmaker who represents the suburbs of Washington, Wexton said she wants to see the Capitol open again to visitors. While the indoor parts of the building have been closed to the public for the last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the plazas, roads and sidewalks that surround the Capitol were only cut off after the riot, keeping the public completely away from the area.

"I would like to see it come down at the earliest possible moment," Wexton said of the fencing.

While lawmakers were initially supportive of the fencing to secure the area, and the thousands of National Guard troops sent to the Capitol to back up the overwhelmed police force, they soon said they were ready for a drawdown.

"I think we've overdone it," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky last month. "It looks terrible to have the beacon of our democracy surrounded by razor wire and National Guard troops."

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the top Republican on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, said the fencing should come down because the next security problem is "highly unlikely to be a carbon copy of the last problem." Republican Rep. Carlos Gimenez of Florida told Fox News he believed Democrats were keeping the fence up for "political reasons."

But abhorrence of the fence is a rare issue on which the two parties can agree.

"It's just ghastly, it's an embarrassment," said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat. "If there's a better way to protect us, I want to see it. I want to work to get it."

Security officials, though, say that the Capitol cannot return to what had been status quo.

In February, acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman told lawmakers that "the Capitol's security infrastructure must change."

A security review requested by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in the aftermath of the riot and conducted by a task force recommended eventually replacing the barrier with mobile fencing and "an integrated, retractable fencing system" that could be used as needed. But it is unclear whether such an expensive proposal could win approval from Congress.

Ryan said his committee was doing extensive research and even had a recent call with Israeli security officials to learn how they keep their government secure.

"We've got to figure out what the sweet spot is with the security," he said.

Analysis: Mississippi Capitol actions have real-life impact

JACKSON • If spring pollen keeps you congested, if you're a 16-year-old enjoying freedom as a new driver or if you're hosting a party and running short of tequila for margaritas — and, ideally, you are not all those things at once — the Mississippi Legislature took action this year to affect your life.

Gov. Tate Reeves has already signed Senate Bill 2119, which will become law Jan. 1. It will eliminate the prescription requirement for decongestants containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. Under the new law, the medicine will be available behind the counter of pharmacies, and pharmacists will be required to keep track of how much is sold to one person.

Like many other states, Mississippi mandated a prescription years ago because drug enforcement agents said medications with ephedrine or pseudoephedrine were being used as an ingredient in crystal methamphetamine. Some consumers had complained that nonprescription decongestants were not strong enough. Mississippi Sen. Joey Fillingane, a Republican from Sumrall, told WDAM-TV that drug agents have seen an increase in crystal meth smuggled from other countries, and most states had already eased the prescription requirement for the decongestants.

New teenage drivers could also be affected by a change in state law, if Reeves signs House Bill 550. It would eliminate the requirement for a six-month intermediate driver's license between the one-year learner's permit and the regular license.

With a few exceptions — such as for work — a person with an intermediate license is not supposed to drive between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The intermediate license was designed to provide an extra protection for new drivers, but critics said it just created another layer of bureaucracy by requiring one more trip to a driver's license bureau to switch from an intermediate license to a regular one.

If Reeves signs House Bill 550, it would become law immediately.

House Bill 1135 is also awaiting a decision from the governor. It would allow home delivery of liquor, beer, wine or light spirits from local package stores or retailers. Buyers would have to prove they are at least 21, and delivery people would have to be at least that old. Deliveries could not be made to dry counties or cities. The plan would not allow home delivery from out-of-state vendors, so it's still not possible to join a wine-of-the-month club from a California winery.

Legislators started their 2021 session in early January and finished their work Thursday. The first bill they passed and the governor signed this year has had an easy-to-see impact. House Bill 1 put the design of the new magnolia-themed state flag into law.

The House and Senate voted last summer to retire a 126-year-old Mississippi banner that was the last state flag in the U.S. that included the Confederate battle emblem. They made the change amid pressure from sports, business and religious leaders as protests against racial injustice were happening across the nation.

Legislators created a commission to design a new Mississippi flag, mandating that it include the phrase, "In God We Trust." By law, that single design was put on the November ballot for voters to accept or reject, and they accepted it by a wide margin. The new flag was raised over the Capitol during a ceremony in January, and it's now flying at government buildings, businesses and homes around the state.

Pocketbook issues were important during the legislative session. Reeves has already signed one bill authorizing a teacher pay raise and another bill increasing Mississippi's lowest-in-the-nation welfare payments for the first time in 21 years.

Legislators approved pay raises for other state employees, and department heads will decide who would get how much.