LANSFORD, Penn. — 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.
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."
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."
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, her 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.
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.
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."
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.
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."