What is abuse and who makes that call?
By Kevin Robinson
In a dim, downtown Pensacola office, Cheryl Shakur flipped through a thick manilla folder with one hand and cradled a telephone against her ear with the other.
The weighty folder on Shakur’s desk held the lives of a young family distilled into paper and ink: Medical records, criminal histories, notes from police officers and case managers. The dossier – generated in response to the all-too common report of “family violence threatens child” – gave Shakur a baseline sense of who and what she was about to walk into and an introduction to the child, who as of that morning, became her responsibility.
“My No. 1 priority is to make sure my children are safe,” said Shakur, a child protective investigator for the Department of Children and Families. “To do that, I try to determine: is there a safety risk, what is it and what we can do about it.”
Child protection teams and local law enforcement agencies investigate thousands of claims of child maltreatment in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties annually. There is no hard and fast rule for determining when a spanking crosses the line into physical abuse or how dirty a home can be before it constitutes neglect. There are statutes and guidelines to provide a compass, but ultimately it falls on a consensus of individuals like Shakur to determine what constitutes abuse and when it’s severe enough to warrant outside intervention.
Her meeting arrangements in place, Shakur hung up the phone and prepared to head out of her office with one mission: To ensure that the child in her folder was safe with his own parents.
“When we leave here, we’re going to change their lives for the good, for the bad, forever,” Shakur said.
What is child abuse?
Serious finding verified
Number of Children with a Most Serious Finding of Verified.
- 2010 total: 1199
- 2014 total: 1166
Santa Rosa County
- 2010 total: 534
- 2014 total: 380
Abuse – as defined by Florida statutes – means any willful or threatened act that results in physical, mental or sexual abuse, injury, or harm that causes or is likely to cause the child’s physical, mental or emotional health to be significantly impaired.
Abuse – as understood by parents – is often misunderstood. Depending on who you ask, you can’t spank your child at all. Some believe you can hit your child, but you can’t leave a bruise. The truth here, as in most things, is somewhere in the middle.
For instance, Florida statutes say corporal discipline may be considered excessive or abusive when it results in sprains, dislocations, significant bruises or welts, broken bones, cuts or other similar injuries. It seems simple in theory, but what is a “significant bruise” in practice? The size of a quarter? The size of an apple? Is a number of “insignificant” bruises acceptable?
Law enforcement and DCF have different standards as to what constitutes excessive abuse, said Stacey Kostevicki, executive director of the Gulf Coast Kid’s House. “You have all these blurry lines.”
Guidelines are important when investigating abuse, but so is common sense and context, according to Sgt. Steve Cappas of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office Special Victims Unit.
Children in investigations
Number of children involved in investigations.
- 2010 total: 6081
- 2014 total: 6606
Santa Rosa County
- 2010 total: 2270
- 2014 total: 2174
“On the physical abuse side, a lot will fall under corporeal punishment,” Cappas said. “In those cases we have to evaluate what they used to spank the child – are they using their hand or a belt? Is it something that’s going to break skin?…How many times was a child hit? Where were they hit?”
The DCF Child Maltreatment Index is something of a Bible for investigators. It gives a checklist of things to consider when reviewing allegations of abuse under 20 categories such as burns, medical neglect, abandonment and mental injury.
One thing that often baffles parents is a child’s safety isn’t always measured in physical injuries or visible scars. Mental scars can cut much deeper and have a more lasting effect on a child’s development.
“A lot of times parents will say, ‘I didn’t hurt my child. Why are you here?'” Shakur said. “The bumps and bruises heal, but the trauma of seeing mom and dad fighting or struggling with addiction, that stays with you.”
She asked rhetorically, “How many times have you fallen down and hurt yourself in your life? You probably don’t remember. How many the times has someone really hurt your feelings? You can probably name them all.”
Investigations typically start with a call to the Florida Abuse Hotline or a report to law enforcement. Depending on the type and severity of the allegations – if a child is in immediate danger, if they suffered minor or severe injuries, if the claims involve sexual abuse – the calls are prioritized and sent to the appropriate investigators.
From there, it becomes a matter of determining if the allegations can be substantiated.
“All of the calls are worked the same way,” Cappas said. “We try to get who, what, when, where.”
Number of Child Abuse Reports Investigated.
- 2010 total: 3839
- 2014 total: 4435
Santa Rosa County
- 2010 total: 1465
- 2014 total: 1441
The problem is that families often give conflicting, inconsistent or untrue answers.
“We are an intrusive agency,” Shakur said. “We are asking people about the most personal aspects of their lives, things they don’t even tell their closest friends.”
The judgment of their peers, the fear of legal consequences, and the risk of losing a child or parent are all factors that can lead perpetrators, witnesses and victims to be less than honest. The job of investigators is to weed through all of the circumstances and determine if there is “no indicator” of abuse, if abuse allegations are “not substantiated” (cases where an investigator knows something happened, but not exactly what) or if abuse can be “verified.”
“Johnny has a gash under his eye and no one can say how it happened,” Kostevicki said as an example of a common type of investigation. DCF or law enforcement will start looking for witnesses, have interviews and a medical exam to make sure that how Johnny said he fell is consistent with his injuries.”
Because the stakes are high – a child’s future and safety – the burden of proof is also very high for investigators.
“We look at the credibility of the victim – whether they’ve made other different claims – the number of victims, if there were other witnesses, whether the defendant was there at that time and if there is evidence of physical abuse,” State Attorney Bill Eddins gave as examples of aggravating and mitigating factors.
Investigators attempt to get the most accurate, comprehensive data they can to present to their superiors. From there, DCF, law enforcement, prosecutors, social workers individually compile their data to present to the judges or juries who will ultimately have the final say on a child’s safety.
“People think we go in laissez-faire and say we’re just going to take a child out of a home… As a human, I don’t want to be the only one who puts eyes on this case,” Shakur said. “It’s family-by-family. Case-by-case. You can hear generally the same set of circumstances, but one thing can make the child safe or unsafe.”
Serious reports verified
Number of Child Abuse Reports with a Most Serious Finding of Verified.
- 2010 total: 721
- 2014 total: 722
Santa Rosa County
- 2010 total: 315
- 2014 total: 212
After meeting with the family in her folder, Shakur determined that a domestic violence incident did occur but the child in the home was not threatened by it.
In her office, Shakur ran down her checklist, marking boxes and making notes. There was no point system, no score sheet she could feed into her computer to decide “abuse” or “not abuse.” Shakur noted who she talked to, what she saw, what she thinks, what she can prove. There were still interviews to be conducted. Staff meetings to be held. Court appearances to be made. But for now, Shakur takes some respite knowing the child, her child, is not in immediate danger.
It’s not a definitive course of action. And it certainly isn’t fool-proof. Perpetrators, investigators and victims alike are vulnerable to human error.
“This boy is not a piece of paper,” Shakur said, her hand emphatically tapping the thick manilla folder on her desk. “I’ve seen him. I’ve touched him. I’ve held him in my arms. He is not a piece of paper, he is a boy, and you have to be emotionally invested. Emotion is what keeps me going if I’m tired. If I’m hungry. If it’s late. If I ever feel like I’m not emotionally involved, then this isn’t the job for me anymore.”
VICTIMS NEXT DOOR: PART ONE: CHILDREN IN CRISIS
PART TWO: BEYOND HORRIFIC
PART THREE: THE CYCLE OF ABUSE
PART FOUR: SURVIVORS
Pensacola News Journal