Behind the lines of a war on children
Carlos Gieseken, Kimberly Blair and Kevin Robinson, pnj.com
About this series
These stories are the first in a four-part series spanning eight days focusing on child abuse in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Our goal is simple: to increase awareness of the need to report suspected abuse, in the hopes of saving children and families in our community.
The No. 1 priority of child advocates is to keep children safe. To do that, they must first determine is there a safety risk, what is it and what they can do about it. But when it comes to defining child abuse, it’s not as black and white as one might think.
Behind the lines of a war on children
By Carlos Gieseken
Florida – Throughout Escambia and Santa Rosa counties there are closed doors hiding unspeakable acts of violence, neglect and rape against children.
Overwhelmingly, the perpetrators are the parents, step-parents, caregivers and sometimes siblings of those children. They are the people the children trust; the only family they know.
In most cases, the victims are between 0 and 6 years old. They are small and curious and at an age when life is full of wonder and exploration. Every new experience, large or small, shapes their world view. So when abuse comes, whether violent, sexual or through neglect, it is another experience that forms what they see as a norm of everyday life.
The sad reality is that over the last 10 years, the abuse has become more frequent — and more horrific.
In 2014, one out of 14 children in Escambia County was involved in an allegation of abuse according to the Department of Children and Families. In Santa Rosa County, it was one out of 25. Between the two counties, one out of 19 children is involved in child abuse.
That’s a huge jump from just 10 years ago.
The number of children in the population of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in 2010 vs 2014.
- 2010 – 70,877
- 2014 – 65,306
Santa Rosa County:
- 2010 – 34,698
- 2014 – 36,267
Child Welfare Services and Investigations Trend Reports
In 2004, one out of every 25 children in the two counties were involved in a child abuse allegation. Anecdotally, caseworkers and medical providers say the complexity and severity of the abuse is increasing. Children as young as a few months old sustain broken bones, third-degree burns and blunt force trauma above the neck.
In 2014, there were 5,876 children reported as victims in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, enough to fill the seats of Blue Wahoos stadium in Community Maritime Park, with an additional 800 left standing outside.
It takes a dedicated, equal force to combat this epidemic and to find short and long-term solutions. That’s where advocacy centers like the Gulf Coast Kid’s House, in Escambia County, and the Santa Rosa Kids’ House, in Santa Rosa County, come into play.
Multiple agencies are housed under one roof so a child only has to go to a single location for medical exams, interviews, depositions and therapy.
Law enforcement, case workers, therapists and prosecutors work in close proximity. The result is more efficient information sharing, a dramatic decrease in the time it takes to investigate cases and an increase in prosecution rates.
Most importantly, the children don’t have to tell their stories over and over again, re-living the abuse each time.
Abusers come from all walks of life
Causes of child abuse vary widely and can include alcohol and drug usage, past abuse, social and economic pressure, immaturity, poor anger management and a lack of parenting skills. There’s no one definer that sets a child abuser apart from those who won’t cross that line.
“You don’t have to be dumb or lower-life to do it,” said Keith Ann Campbell, executive director of the Santa Rosa Kids’ House in Milton. “You can be really smart, the most intelligent men and women do that with their kids and just don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.”
“If you ask any of the therapists here,” said Stacey Kostevicki, executive director of the Gulf Coast Kid’s House in Pensacola, “abuse is all about the power and control you can exert over your victim.”
Over the next week, the Pensacola News Journal will publish a series of stories that examine the causes, symptoms and effects of child abuse in our area. Reporters will examine the short and long-term effects of abuse as it tears individuals and families apart.
The numbers do not lie: No matter where you live in Escambia or Santa Rosa counties, child abuse may very well live next door.
Reporting: The primary weapon against child abuse
It’s a natural inclination to not want to get involved in someone else’s family business, particularly the disciplining of their children. The fear of reporting what maybe isn’t really abuse or the guilt that “we” are the cause of a child being taken away from a family can stop many from reporting abuse.
But in the state of Florida, the Protection of Vulnerable Persons law puts that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of every adult who witnesses abuse. Signed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2012, it says failure to report an incident could result in a third degree felony charge, five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Although difficult to enforce, it underscores the under-reporting of abuse that is too often the status quo.
“In the South, people tend to be polite,” Kostevicki said. “Reporting a family is helping a family. It’s not hurting them.”
It’s the age of the children who are most abused that prompts the largest need for greater reporting by neighbors or family members. Those 6 and under haven’t developed articulate speech and can’t tell others what is happening to them.
“They are the ones not visible in the community unless you are in pre-K,” Kostevicki said. “It will have to come from a concerned neighbor or family member.”
Whenever possible, case workers and law enforcement seek to reunite children who have been removed from their parents as a result of a child abuse claim. They will work to remove the stressors that cause the parent to strike the child, or work on anger management.
In Florida, reports can be submitted confidentially to the Florida Abuse Hotline over the phone at 1-800-962-2873, online at https://reportabuse.dcf.state.fl.us/ or by fax at 1-800-914-0004. Staff assess the provided information and determine if it meets statutory criteria for the Department of Children and Families to conduct an investigation.
Warning signs of abuse
Viewed as the most comprehensive child abuse law in the nation, the Protection of Vulnerable Persons law also requires teachers in grades one through 12 to receive training for identifying signs of abuse.
Injuries to the back and the ear are often, but not always, signs of abuse, medical providers say. Changes in behavior such as becoming withdrawn, not eating, not bathing and being fearful around a specific family member are other signs.
“It’s any kind of change in behavior,” said Kelly MacLeod, development and outreach coordinator at the Gulf Coast Kid’s House. “A very gregarious child who all of a sudden is withdrawn. Any extreme change.”
Parents will say, once the child has disclosed abuse, that there were many warning signs the parent didn’t pick up on in retrospect.
“You think it’s them becoming teenagers and all of a sudden they become impossible,” Kostevicki said. “But sometimes it’s because of abuse.”
Children removed from home
Number of child removed to out-of-home care in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in 2010 vs 2014.
- 2010 – 405
- 2014 – 449
Santa Rosa County:
- 2010 – 127
- 2014 – 165
According to the Children’s Bureau, an office of the Administration for Children & Families in Washington, D.C., child abuse can result in depression, anxiety and high-risk behaviors that can make a person more likely to turn to substance abuse. Impaired brain development, poor health and cognitive difficulties are among other long-term effects.
Survivors of abuse will grow up to have their own families and even successful businesses. All the while they will struggle with daily triggers that bring back horrible memories. Victims interviewed by the Pensacola News Journal say they coped with depression and suicidal thoughts for years after the abuse stopped.
Others never quite escape the grasp of the abuse, their warped sense of parenthood negatively affecting how they raise their own children, even if the abuse is not repeated on to them.
There is also a larger economic effect, both in worker productivity and in the strain on human services.
According to a 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control with the RTI International Public Health Economics Program, the estimated average lifetime cost per victim of child abuse is $210,012 in 2010 dollars, or $228,356 in 2015 dollars after adjusting for inflation.
The average estimated lifetime cost in lost productivity per child killed by abuse is just under $1.4 million dollars, after adjusting for inflation.
“Compared with other health problems, the burden of child maltreatment is substantial,” the study concluded, “indicating the importance of prevention efforts to address the high prevalence of child maltreatment.”