HANCOCK COUNTY, Ind. – Hancock County is working to stop the growing problem of child abuse. This year county officials and organizations have started several new efforts to protect children from neglect and abuse.
PREVENT CHILD ABUSE COUNCIL OF HANCOCK COUNTY
At the end of August, the county launched a Prevent Child Abuse Council. The council is a part of a national organization, and almost half of all Indiana counties have one. The council is made up of people from in the community from different backgrounds, all working together to prevent child abuse from ever occurring.
Like the rest of the state, Hancock County is seeing a growing number of Child in Need of Services, or CHINS cases. The latest Department of Child Services data from June shows more than 70 CHINS in Hancock County. At the same time last year there were 69, and in 2013 there were 47.
The East Central Indiana Child Advocates Executive Director, Annette E. Craycraft, oversees Hancock County. Craycraft said in one week she saw 12 new detentions, which is “unheard of” in Hancock County. The county has a waiting list of 44 children who need a CASA, or court-appointed special advocate who helps guide the children through the court system.
“There’s an awful lot of child abuse that is simply not reported, and so we don’t really know if we’re seeing a spike in actual cases or if we’re seeing a spike in reported,” said Mary Armstrong-Smith, with Prevent Child Abuse Indiana.
Armstrong-Smith has been working with the Hancock County council, helping them obtain their charter — to become an official council. The Prevent Child Abuse Council will unite hospitals, law enforcement and community groups. Together, they’ll arm parents with the resources they need to care for their children.
“Prevention councils do public activities to bring information and awareness to folks. Say for instance, they may do info about child development. We know a lot of abuse and neglect happen because of a misunderstanding of basic child development. Councils reach out to parents and families and provide encouragement [because] parenting is the hardest job in the world. Prevention councils provide means for parents and caregivers to get information and support that they need on a local basis,” said Armstrong-Smith.
Councils also educate the community on how to spot abuse.
“People may be hesitant. They see something, but they don’t know to call the police. They don’t recognize what the signs of abuse may be,” said Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton.
Eaton is part of the Hancock County Council.
“A lot of people feel hopeless about child abuse and neglect. They think the only way you can take action is after something happens,” said Armstrong-Smith.
Child abuse is a crime that often goes unseen, until it’s impossible to miss. It’s something Greenfield knows all too well.
“I first heard about the case with little Zoey, the day that it happened,” said Don Johnson, who lives in Greenfield.
Johnson is talking about Zoey Wagoner, a 1-year-old baby girl from Greenfield who police say died earlier this year. Investigators said she lived in hell, being neglected and abused by her parents her whole life.
Court documents show the little girl had injuries that could have been caused by being stomped on, and she died from blunt force traumatic injuries.
Now her parents are charged with her murder. Their trial is set for October.
“It did shock the community, there was a lot of talk about it as how something like that could happen in such a small community,” said Johnson.
Eaton wouldn’t speak about the Wagoner case, because it is still pending. But he said whenever abuse happens, he wants the county to be ready. Eaton believes the new council will help.
“Having communication will allow us to prosecute those cases more effectively. More importantly, we’ll provide information to the community to prevent those types of crimes from occurring at all,” said Eaton.
“It is absolutely possible to prevent child abuse and neglect before it has a chance to get started,” said Armstrong-Smith.
Hancock County also established an Exchange Club this year. The Exchange Club is a local branch of another national organization, aimed at preventing child abuse. The Exchange Club and the Prevent Child Abuse Council will work very closely.
NEW VICTIM’S ASSISTANCE POSITION
The Hancock County Prosecutor’s office also created a new position this year, aimed at helping victims who have gone through a traumatic crime like child abuse. Katie Molinder is Hancock County’s Victim Assistance Coordinator.
“Previously there wasn’t one person who was dedicated to give information about court cases, any helping them collect restitution, just added support. Connecting our victims to social services in the community, being that point of contact, when going to trial, to answer any questions that they have,” said Molinder, “With my role as a victim’s assistance coordinator, our most special victims are child victims.”
CHILD ADVOCACY CENTER IN THE WORKS
A Child Advocacy center is in the works for Hancock County. Molinder and Eaton are leading the effort to start the center. A Child Advocacy Center would help reduce the trauma of child victims.
“Getting good interviews, wrapping around that family with social services and helping them connect with those services. It’s something that’s very important for not only our prosecution, but for the children in our community and our families in the community,” said Molinder.
Molinder said a Child Advocacy Center would help children and attorneys feel prepared for trial, while ensuring the victims are protected. For example, reducing the number of times a child would have to be interviewed before trial, to keep the child from re-living the traumatic experience over and over again.
“It’s very important for us to be addressing those mental health needs, getting the kids in and helping them understand the whole entire court process. Just being with that family as they’re going through the entire process. I think it will make a huge difference,” said Molinder.
Currently, they’re in the process of obtaining non-profit status and funding. The prosecutor’s office is also looking for a space for the center. Molinder said the goal is for the center to be up and running by December 2016.
“Things here in Hancock County are really coming together at a really good time, to be able to help some of our special victims. We have victims of all kinds of crime, but paying particular to our very traumatized special victims,” said Molinder.