Officials: Preventing Child Abuse Is Community Effort – Pt #1 of 2

.jpg photo of victim of Child Abuse
Juan Joseph Hinojosa Gonzalez

by Krista Torralva of the Corpus Christi Caller Times

Corpus Christi, TX  –  Too often, after a child has died at the hands of his or her parent; an aunt or uncle will cry out about abuse they witnessed.

By then it’s too late.

The Child Protective Services case worker interviewing the family member can’t do anything to save the child.

It’s a familiar scenario, frustrating to the department and court. After two recent child deaths — an infant who was shaken to death and police arrested the father, and a 2-year-old dying of a head injury police believe the mother’s boyfriend caused — court and department officials are pleading with the community to watch out and report child mistreatment.

“I would really like it if the community would… step in and intervene versus worrying about not wanting to get involved or (saying) ‘That’s not my business.’  Children are their business,” said Tara O’Connell, a CPS Services Program Administrator.  “Children should not just be the business of child protective services.  Everybody should stand up for the children of our community because they can’t stand up for themselves.”

Between Sept. 1, 2010, and Aug. 31, 2014, the department determined 20 children in Nueces County died as a result of abuse or neglect and 977 across the state died.

Danger may not be as obvious as a parent slapping or kicking their child.  Warning signs can include a parent speaking negatively of their child, calling them names, seeming detached from the child and unaware of the child’s age or school grade.

“That’s a sign they might not be very bonded with their own child and sometimes that leads to abuse and neglect,” O’Connell said.  “So it’s important that when people see something, if it makes them uncomfortable, that they reach out and figure out what kind of help they can get them ahead of time.”

County Court at Law No. 5 Judge Timothy McCoy suspects part of the reason neighbors or family members don’t report suspicious activity is because they have a misunderstanding about the department and court’s role.  The purpose is not to take a parent’s children away forever, he said.  Many times, parents just need training or counseling and the court has a host of programs, he said. Substance abuse is a problem in most of the cases and there are programs to help curb drug and alcohol usage.

“We don’t break up families.  Our intent and goal is to reunify families and that’s the law,” McCoy said.  “Punishment is second to rehabilitation.”

CPS had custody of 441 children — enough students to fill Sanders Elementary School — as of Sept. 7.  Most of the children are under 10 years old and more than 100 are under 3 years old, according to CPS data.  Those numbers include pending cases, meaning some of the children may return to their parents. In other cases, the department and court tries to place the children with other relatives or family friends to maintain as much familiarity as possible, O’Connell said.

Between Sept. 1, 2013, and Aug. 31, 2014, 45 percent of the children that exited the department in O’Connell’s 19-county region were returned to their parents.  Of those who were not, 75 percent went to live with a relative.

“Even though their mom or dad may have done things to them that are not OK, it’s still a dramatic change so we want to get them back to someone they know and someone they’re familiar with as soon as possible,” O’Connell said.

Not speaking about specific cases, the abuse is often perpetrated by a parent’s boyfriend or girlfriend, O’Connell said.

Lionel Pena, who has been charged with capital murder in the death of 2-year-old Juan Joseph Hinojosa Gonzalez, was dating the boy’s mother.  The siblings of 6-year-old Xadrian Martinez, who died last year, told investigators their mother’s boyfriend beat him and slammed him against a refrigerator.  Both the boyfriend, Albert Villarreal, and the mother, Nancy Martinez, are jailed awaiting separate capital murder trials.

“It’s really important that people who are parents if they start spending time with someone and they notice this someone has violent tendencies, they get angry very easy, they should not leave their children at home alone with them,” O’Connell said.

Parents can seek help themselves if they recognize signs of struggling with parenting.  The Department of Family and Protective Services launched a website in 2012 with tips for parents to cope with stress or find help in their community.  The website, www.helpandhope.org, has been viewed about 1.5 million times since it’s June 2012 launch, agency spokesman John Lennan said.

BY THE NUMBERS

2010

Nueces County

  • Child population 87,455
  • Confirmed victims 1,307

Texas

  • Child population 6,584,709
  • Confirmed victims 66,897

2011

Nueces County

  • Child population 97,714
  • Confirmed victims 1,256

Texas

  • Child population 6,663,942
  • Confirmed victims 65,948

2012

Nueces County

  • Child population 88,188
  • Confirmed victims 1,107

Texas

  • Child population 7,054,634
  • Confirmed victims 64,366

2013

Nueces County

  • Child population 88,215
  • Confirmed victims 1,004

Texas

  • Child population 7,159,172
  • Confirmed victims 66,398

2014

Nueces County

  • Child population 88,260
  • Confirmed victims 1,308

Texas

  • Child population 7,266,760
  • Confirmed victims 66,572

Source: Department of Family and Protective Services

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