Glasgow, Kentucky – Child abuse prevention is a year-round effort, but the issue comes to the forefront during Child Abuse Prevention Month in April.
According to Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky, a prevention organization, child abuse cases increased in Kentucky from 2013 to 2014. In 2013, 56,113 child abuse cases met criteria for investigation by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Of those, 23,951 were substantiated. In 2014, total cases increased to 58,114 and 22,926 were substantiated.
Whether such statistics indicate an actual increase in child abuse, however, is unclear.
Child abuse includes physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect. Kentucky law defines an abused or neglected child as one whose health or welfare is harmed or threatened.
“My sense is that I’m having to remove more children now from homes than I did three or four years ago,” said Barren Family Court Judge Mitchell Nance. “I do not know if that is only because there are more children in the home or whether there is more incidence of abuse.”
Nance’s perception is that occurrences of child abuse are increasing, due in part to better detection.
“The sad truth is if there is one that’s way too many,” Nance said.
Dawn Crabtree, service region administrative associate for CHFS, believes communities are better educated about what child abuse is and therefore will report incidents so CHFS can become involved.
“Twenty years ago, not everybody was aware,” she said. “Used to, we had a dirty house. We don’t have just a dirty house anymore. I think that plays a role in it and shows that people are out there and watching.”
Child abuse is also easier to report now than in the past.
“It’s just not a phone call,” said Liz Wade, a social services specialist with CHFS. “You can report via the Web. We get a lot of reports that way, especially like from schools.”
Cases must meet certain criteria, as defined by state law, in order to trigger an investigation by a social worker.
“Basically, there has to be an action by the caretaker of abuse or neglect, a situation or incident that the child has been harmed or is at risk of being harmed,” Wade said. “Once it is accepted, centralized intake determines if it meets our criteria then it is sent out to the local county for an investigation.”
In sex abuse cases, the investigator must respond within an hour, especially if the alleged perpetrator still has access to the child.
“If it is physical abuse, they have to initiate within 24 hours and if it’s neglect, they have to initiate within 48 hours,” Wade said.
Of the child abuse cases Nance reviews, most involve neglect.
“Every now and then, there will be an allegation that a parent or even a non-parent has abused a child, say shaken-baby syndrome or some other excessive abuse. That does occur, but in most of the cases the custodian has neglected the child,” he said.
Child neglect can mean a parent or guardian failed to provide a standard of care for the child, and drug abuse by adults often leads to the neglect of children, Nance said.
Wade estimates the number of substantiated child abuse cases each year that are neglect to be between 70 to 75 percent. The percentage of child abuse cases involving physical or sexual abuse is much lower, she said.
In investigating child abuse cases, state social workers try to determine how safe children are in the home. When children must be removed from a home, social workers try to find relatives or place the children with a foster family.
“Our overall goal is to keep safe in their home and keep families intact, though sometimes we are unable to do that,” Wade said. “There’s over 7,000 children in foster care in the state of Kentucky. That’s just a lot of kids. The resource we constantly need are foster parents, so kids don’t have to be removed from their home community. They deserve to stay in Barren County, if we can (keep them here). Sometimes we can’t do that because we don’t have a foster home available so they may have to move to another county.”
Many factors can contribute to child abuse.
“It can go back to family dynamics; how they were raised. It can go back to parents who have substance abuse issues. There could be mental health issues, domestic violence,” Wade said. “Our biggest risk factors are income issues or poverty issues, domestic violence, mental health and substance abuse. Almost three-fourths of our substantiated reports have at least two or more of those risk factors.”
Crabtree said no demographic is immune to child abuse and that it is not defined by a family’s socioeconomic status.
“I mean, it can be anybody,” she said.
Nance believes an overall change in the family structure is to blame for child abuse.
“I think the most fundamental step that as a society we could take to reduce the instance of child abuse would be if we promoted husband and wives who are parents of children, maintaining their marriages, so that the children have the opportunity to grow up in one home headed by mother and father married to each other,” he said.
“If we are serious about wanting to do something about child abuse, we would work on the fundamental problem and the fundamental problem is the disintegration of the nuclear family.”
Wade and Crabtree urge the public to report any suspected child abuse, so CHFS can determine if it needs to be investigated.
“The smallest thing may not be much to one person, but it could be a big indicator for something else,” Crabtree said. “Just call. Keep calling.”
Those who report child abuse remain anonymous. To report child abuse, call CHFS at 1-877-597-2331.