Luzerne County ranks among the top nine statewide in the number of recorded fatalities or near-fatalities resulting from child abuse or neglect, according to a recent report that reviewed data from Jan. 1, 2010 through Sept. 30, 2014.
The ranking is higher than the county’s population standing: Luzerne County is the 12th most populous of the state’s 67 counties.
Philadelphia skews the numbers in the report, released by The Center for Children’s Justice, with 100 fatalities or near-fatalities from Child Abuse or Neglect. Allegheny County had the next highest total with 27. Luzerne County had 12.
In releasing the data, the center focused on the need to refine “plans of safe care” required under state laws enacted in 2014 and 2015, designed to assure the safety of children in situations that may not meet the definition of child abuse, but who face greater risks because of parental drug use.
The center cited the Feb. 14, 2014, death of “a 3-month-old male Luzerne County infant” despite the fact that Children and Youth Services “had been involved with the family since the infant’s birth” after the mother had tested positive for cocaine and marijuana. A court order was in place preventing “the mother from having unsupervised contact with her children.”
The center’s report didn’t provide a name, but the information makes it clear the case referred to is the death of Jaxon Eckrote, who suffocated when his mother, Tracey Ann Gonda, allegedly closed a recliner on the infant. Police say Gonda had been drinking before the child’s death.
Gonda and the father, Corey Eckrote, face multiple charges in the case. Prosecutors contend the couple did not follow the court-ordered plan designed to ensure Jaxon’s safety.
Which is the crux of the center’s argument.
In analyzing the data, the center notes that federal and state laws now require “Plans of Safe Care for Infants Affected by Prenatal Substance Exposure and Parental Addiction,” but that those laws still have some ambiguity in “what entity is responsible” for those plans.
“The federal statute did not specify whether it is the formal child welfare agency or another entity,” the release says. That ambiguity “demonstrates a challenge, but also an opportunity since it appears there is important flexibility in designing and implementing plans of safe care, beyond the formal child welfare system.
“Pennsylvania could well harness the urgency surrounding the state’s drug epidemic and the evolving transformations in key policies and funding streams … to cultivate the use of carefully crafted and measured interdisciplinary plans of safe care,” the center argues.
The report includes a breakdown of fatalities or near fatalities each year from 2010 through September of 2014, the latest available data from the state. Of Luzerne County’s 12 cases, five occurred in 2011 and another five in 2013. Once incident occurred in 2012 and another in 2014.
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish.