HARRISBURG - Reports of suspected child abuse rose 9 percent last year in Pennsylvania, reaching the highest number since the state began collecting such reports a decade ago.
The percentage of child abuse reports that were substantiated fell slightly - from 14 percent in 2011 to 13.4 percent in 2012, according to a newly released annual report by the state Department of Public Welfare.
Reports increased across the state, with upticks noted in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties. Philadelphia, the report said, saw a decrease.
"This marks 2012 as the year Pennsylvania received more reports of suspected child abuse than any other year on record," Beverly Mackereth, the acting welfare secretary, said in the report.
Mackereth called the numbers an "unprecedented increase" and said it stems from a "surge in awareness" of child abuse issues in the state.
Advocates and experts said a combination of greater awareness and better training contributed to the trends cited in the report.
The increase in reporting - there were 2,286 more reports of suspected child abuse in 2012 than 2011 - came as a number of high-profile cases were unfolding in Pennsylvania, including the scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, the onetime assistant Pennsylvania State University football coach now imprisoned for molesting boys.
Leslie Slingsby, director of the Bucks County Children's Advocacy Center, said increased training of so-called mandated reporters - people who are required to report suspected cases of child abuse - helped explain the higher numbers.
Mandated reporters accounted for 78 percent of reports of suspected abuse last year, the report found. Under state law, mandated reporters include physicians, school teachers and administrators, social-services workers, and child-care workers.
Slingsby said further prevention cannot take place without revamping state laws.
Legislators are considering a proposal to expand the definition of child abuse. State Rep. Kathy Watson (R., Bucks), who heads the Children and Youth Committee, said she hoped to get the bill voted on by the House before the chamber breaks for the summer.
Watson said the bill would remove some words - such as "severe" pain and "serious" injury - from the definition of suspected abuse that must be reported, and would include sexually explicit conversations with children as well as engaging in crimes involving drugs or alcohol in children's presence. "Everything is geared to look at the world through the eyes of the child," she said.
Under existing law, said Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Protect Our Children Committee, "the threshold in terms of injury and of pain is pretty significant to be considered child abuse."