BOSTON — Incidents of physical and emotional abuse involving children skyrocketed during the first few months of the pandemic, according to a new state report.

At least 497 "critical incidents" were reported to the Office of the Child Advocate in the fiscal year that ended June 30 — a 110% increase over the previous fiscal year, according to the agency.

Most reports came from the state Department of Children and Families involving children in its custody or who were receiving its services.

A critical incident is defined as a fatality, near-fatality or emotional injury. The report by the Office of the Child Advocate attributed the sharp increase in critical incidents, in part, to a rise in emotional injury incidents that occur when a child sees a fatality or violent act, or experiences a life-threatening incident.

But the number of physical abuse incidents also grew more than threefold, according to the report, from six reported in fiscal 2019 to 21 in fiscal 2020.

Most of those cases involved children ages 3 and under, the report noted. Parents were the accused perpetrators in a majority of cases.

The report also noted the number of reported suicide attempts by children increased 88% from the previous year. There were two suicide deaths.

Meanwhile, the report noted a decline in child abuse and neglect complaints received by state agencies, as well as a drop in mandated reporting of suspected abuse, since schools were closed due to the pandemic.

The report shows only part of the pandemic's effects, since its data reflect only the first four months of closures due to COVID-19.

Massachusetts has some of the nation's toughest laws on mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse. Teachers, doctors, nurses and child care workers are threatened with fines and other penalties for failing to report allegations.

The state is also one of six that doesn't require physical evidence or corroborating reports to launch an investigation of abuse.

In the 80-page report, Child Advocate Maria Mossaides noted the pandemic increased the stress on many families, and that has likely led to a spike in abuse.

"Many parents are juggling working from home with providing childcare and in-home education, while others continue to report to work while ensuring that their children are safe at home," Mossaides wrote. "It is widely recognized that in times of crisis and economic stress there is an increase in child abuse and/or neglect."

Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, or MassKids, said the pandemic has shown that home isn't always the safest place for children.

"Stay-at-home orders kept many safe, but they also placed many children at increased risk," she said. "We've seen a dramatic rise in the number of child physical and sexual abuse incidents."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhinews.com.

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