April 2020 has been proclaimed by the President as National Child Abuse Prevention Month. The proclamation calls upon individuals to be aware of children’s safety and well-being, and to support efforts that promote their psychological, physical, and emotional development. April is also a time to highlight the importance of working together to prevent the abuse and neglect of children.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is committed to protecting children from abuse and educating them about how to protect themselves. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) created the Angel Watch Center in 2016 to expand its work with foreign law enforcement partners, alerting them about the intended travel by convicted registered child sex offenders from the United States to their countries. The Center ultimately aims to stop the spread of transnational child sexual abuse.
Additionally, ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)’s Project iGuardian program provides children, teens, parents, and teachers with information regarding the potential dangers of online environments and how to stay safe online. The iGuardian program team is committed to providing safety tips, a number to call, and resources to the public to avoid falling victim to online sexual predators.
As part of HSI’s Operation Predator, which was first launched in 2003, HSI has arrested more than 31,000 individuals for crimes against children, including the production and distribution of online child exploitation material, traveling overseas for the purpose of sexually abusing minors, and sex trafficking of children. In fiscal year 2019, more than 3,900 child predators were arrested by HSI Special Agents under this initiative and more than 1,000 victims were identified or rescued.
The Office on Trafficking in Persons (OTIP) is focused on preventing human trafficking and working to ensure that children and adults who have experienced trafficking and their families get the support and care they need to live safe and healthy lives. This focus remains the same during responses to public health emergencies such as COVID-19. As in times of disaster response, HHS recognizes that disruptions to local services, housing and economic stability, and social disconnection can further increase risk for victimization and exploitation.
Across the country, children have shifted to virtual learning which results in significantly more time spent online. In order to protect them, the Child Exploitation Investigations Unit at HSI reminds families that the agency has a variety of tools available on its iGuardian webpage to keep children safe while using the Internet.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline is fully operational during this health emergency. Polaris is continuing to update its website with resources and information for survivors.
Social Media Shareables
Tag Blue Campaign on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram using @DHSBlueCampaign. Each month we share content you can distribute on your social channels to raise awareness of human trafficking in your communities.
Predators and traffickers can gain access to victims online because people are not always aware of how dangerous these environments can be or how to keep themselves safe. Learn more from @DHSBlueCampaign: https://bit.ly/2xhHBJW
The Internet is a great way to stay in touch, but predators and traffickers oftentimes stalk online meeting places such as social media sites to lure their victims. Learn more from @DHSBlueCampaign: https://bit.ly/2xhHBJW
Proclamation on National Child Abuse
Prevention Month, 2020
Issued on: March 31, 2020
Childhood should be filled with joy, hope, unconditional love, and acceptance. Tragically, however, far too many of our Nation’s young people spend this foundational time of their lives in fear, pain, and uncertainty, enduring abuse and neglect that threatens their health and well-being. During National Child Abuse Prevention Month, we condemn this horrific depravity and reaffirm our unwavering commitment to protecting our children and strengthening our families.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of children across our country suffer from abuse and neglect, a fact that is both sobering and heart-wrenching. In January, I signed an Executive Order to coordinate the Federal Government’s efforts to prosecute individuals who sexually exploit children online, protect and support victims of child exploitation, and provide prevention education to raise awareness and help lower the incidence of child exploitation. I also signed into law legislation to enhance our child welfare systems by supporting at-risk families through mental health and substance abuse treatment and programs to develop parenting skills.
With our international partners in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, the United States developed the Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. The Voluntary Principles establish a baseline framework for companies that provide online services to deter use of the internet as a tool for sexually exploiting and abusing children. Several major technology companies have publicly adopted the principles and more will follow in the coming months. These companies have a responsibility to prevent their platforms from becoming a haven for child predators and to also ensure law enforcement is able to investigate and prosecute offenders when children have been victimized.
Child abuse causes the loss of innocence and hope. Loving, devoted, and caring families can serve as a bulwark against our children suffering from neglect and abuse. Child Welfare Information Gateway, the information service of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau, offers several resources on preventing child abuse and promoting healthy families through its National Child Abuse Prevention Month website. Familiarizing yourself with the information provided by the Department of Health and Human Services can help you learn more about what you and your community can do to support children and families during this month and throughout the year.
To eradicate this blight on our society, compassionate and concerned Americans must work to effect change and impact young lives. Child welfare agencies, clergy members, educators, medical and law enforcement professionals, neighbors, friends, and extended family members all contribute to protecting and nurturing our Nation’s youth. Foster, kinship, and adoptive parents open their hearts and their homes to children in crisis and empower them to find happiness and achieve their dreams. Working together, these forces for good can ensure the welfare of children who have experienced the traumas of abuse or neglect and give them a promising future.
The success of our Nation is reflected in our economic and cultural prosperity and military might, but our character is revealed by how we cherish and protect the weak, innocent, and vulnerable. All children are uniquely created in the image of God and gifted with both purpose and unlimited potential. We can and must relentlessly protect our children, homes, and communities from the scourge of these shameful tragedies and support families and communities to ensure that all children have the opportunity to reach their potential.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim April 2020 as National Child Abuse Prevention Month. I call upon all Americans to invest in the lives of our Nation’s children, to be aware of their safety and well-being, and to support efforts that promote their psychological, physical, and emotional development.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirty-first day of March, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-fourth.
A ‘horrific’ crisis. Hundreds of California Child Abuse reports intentionally
MADERA COUNTY, CA – Children faced “incredible pain and suffering” when a Madera County social worker intentionally discarded hundreds of child abuse reports last year, according to government emails uncovered in a Fresno Bee investigation.
Department emails examined by The Bee indicate at least some of the 357 reports may have been neglected for up to two months. The emails, obtained through a public records request, reveal a behind-the-scenes crisis in the fall of 2019 with Madera County Social Services workers scrambling to investigate hundreds of abandoned abuse referrals.
While sources said there is no known evidence that any child died as a result, emails show workers feared children suffered more abuse while reports were stuffed in waste bins and gathered dust around the social worker’s desk between September and November last year.
Deborah Martinez, the county’s social services director, outlined her dread in a Nov. 7 email to the county’s chief administrative officer at the time.
“There is no doubt that at a minimum, her actions placed children in danger,” Martinez wrote. “The ultimate impact to children and families (in) our community can’t be known but based upon some of the allegations that were made this social worker likely caused incredible pain and suffering.”
Dozens of the dumped cases were emergency reports — cases involving allegations of physical or sexual abuse, the emails show.
Multiple children later were removed from their homes days or weeks after their alleged abuse initially was reported, according to two department sources.
“Some were investigated and found substantiated — those kids would have been abused for that time,” one employee said in an interview. Two department employees were interviewed on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation for speaking with The Bee.
Officials have not released the name of the social worker at the center of the controversy, but have confirmed she no longer is employed at the department.
The Madera County Sheriff’s Office in November launched a criminal investigation that remained open, more than four months after the case came to light.
Meanwhile, state officials said the Madera department never notified the California Department of Social Services. State authorities only learned of the case when The Bee contacted them for comment. State officials are scheduled to be in Madera this week.
The consequences and scope of the crisis remain unclear — and ongoing.
At least 75 of the 357 reports involved possible sexual or other physical abuse, requiring social workers to respond within 24 hours. Another 248 reports involved allegations of neglect and required a 10-day response, according to the emails.
Some of the cases may have been ignored for up to two months.
The outcomes of the remaining 34 reports are unclear, but may have ultimately been determined unfounded. Martinez, the county’s social services director, declined to say specifically, but noted that not every report leads to an investigation.
It’s unclear exactly how many children were involved in the 357 reports. Officials wouldn’t say whether each report is made for an individual child or whether reports group siblings together.
Martinez also refused to say how many children were removed from their homes in connection with the reports, saying those details were part of the ongoing criminal inquiry.
Two employees told The Bee some children would have been removed sooner had reports been investigated properly.
“All those reports could have led to a child’s death,” one employee said. “You don’t want a child to die on your watch. It’s the biggest fear for a department — a child’s death.”
Managers and supervisors were outraged when the problem finally surfaced in early November, according to the emails.
“They also state what was found puts children of Madera County at risk and in harm’s way,” Chris Aguirre, an eligibility supervisor, wrote in a Nov. 14 email to Martinez. “The story I was told is very disturbing and I am appalled at what the worker did. Any person would find the story horrifying.”
Martinez responded, acknowledging the department was “in crisis” and described it as “pretty horrific.”
“Something I never imagined we would be facing and we are working on safeguards to ensure that it can never happen again,” she replied to Aguirre.
Martinez learned of the deserted cases late in the day on Nov. 6.
The employee was placed on leave the following day and escorted from the building. Martinez initially declined to comment on the issue, including the worker’s status. But after The Bee obtained the department’s emails, Martinez confirmed the worker’s employment formally ended Nov. 12. She declined to say whether the worker was fired or quit.
A DEPARTMENT IN CHAOS
How the issue was uncovered remains unclear, and Martinez refused to say during a recent interview with The Bee.
All of the reports appear to have come through the department’s telephone hotline number, the emails reveal.
In the emails, workers describe “pieces of paper” and “post its” that “added up to referrals” found “on and around her desk.” Reports also were hidden in special locked waste baskets, typically used for shredded documents, employees told The Bee.
Workers described to The Bee seeing the locked blue waste bins taken into a conference room where they were dumped out. Workers searched for “blue sheets,” the form workers are supposed to fill out when reports come in through the department’s hotline.
Emails describe social workers racing to catch up with the backlogged caseload as the department conducted its internal review. Employees believed it would take up to a full month just to enter each case into the department’s system for review. On Nov. 15, an email was sent to all social workers interested in working overtime to help with the backlog.
Some of the referrals didn’t have a time or date indicating when the report came in. Employees in mid-November were instructed to enter “today’s date” in the appropriate field if they couldn’t find the proper date, emails show.
Supervisors and managers worried that some abuse reports may have fallen through the cracks altogether.
“Remember that this backlog dates back to September (maybe August but there is no evidence of that),” Danny Morris, deputy director of the Madera County Department of Social Service, wrote on Nov. 20.
The emails also reveal the challenges department supervisors faced sorting through the pile of abandoned reports, including questioning whether overtime pay was available, the effect on other cases, and the strain on workers.
“Social work supervisors would like OT (overtime) to process the backlog of CPS referrals that were just recently discovered,” a department supervisor wrote to Martinez in a Nov. 13 email. “Is this something you would be willing to discuss?”
Martinez responds to Aguirre saying “I can’t pay OT and going through the lengthy process to request authorization for straight time pay has not proven to be beneficial in accomplishing the goal.”
Eventually, social workers were paid overtime, but not social work supervisors, the emails show.
Supervisors also feared falling behind on other cases while the department worked through the backlog.
“I guess I am having a hard time figuring out which areas we can sacrifice and have lack of attention in order to meet the needs referenced,” Shanel Moore, a program manager, wrote in a Nov. 20 email.
It’s not clear when the department finally cleared those cases, but as of Jan. 2, the department still had 27 referrals to complete.
“Could we encourage our (social workers) to get them done as we would like to get these wrapped up soon so we can move on with our lives,” Heidi Sonzena, a program manager, wrote in a Jan. 2 email.
STATE LEFT IN THE DARK AMID CRIMINAL PROBE
The Madera County Sheriff’s Office on Nov. 7 opened a criminal investigation, the same day the social worker was suspended.
Kayla Serratto, spokeswoman for the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, confirmed the investigation continues. She declined to release any details. The Sheriff’s Office denied a public records request seeking case documents, citing a need to protect the now months-long investigation.
“Upon the conclusion of the investigation, the case will be forwarded to the District Attorney’s Office,” Serratto said.
A state official said the California Department of Social Services was unaware of the case until contacted for comment by The Bee.
“We were not informed by the county and made contact after (The Bee’s) referral about this,” said Scott Murray, spokesman for the California Department of Social Services. Murray confirmed the state now is looking into the matter.
State officials also acknowledged the county department was not legally required to alert the state. Murray on Tuesday said state officials are scheduled to be in Madera County this week.
Martinez refused to answer questions about why the state did not know about the case.
Emails show at least some of the department’s top people wanted to keep the episode quiet, even within the office. Supervisors discussed concerns over specific employees learning of the incident.
Officials also discussed the possible ramifications of The Bee’s investigation. Martinez on Dec. 11 wrote it was “unfortunate for there to be an article on this topic,” saying “the county could use a break.”
The following day, Martinez sent another email saying the department would “just deal with the aftermath.”
‘RED FLAGS’ MISSED?
Employees interviewed by The Bee said the department likely missed “red flags” in the weeks before the disaster unfolded.
Child abuse reports typically spike in the fall, from August to around October, when schools resume after the summer break, Martinez acknowledged.
“The largest segment (of reports) are from educators — teachers,” Martinez said.
But that didn’t appear to happen in the fall of 2019 — until the rest of the reports were unearthed and the catastrophe erupted, employees told The Bee.
Martinez wouldn’t comment on what may have motivated the worker to discard the referrals.
“That’s a terrible thing to happen,” said Michael S. Wald, an emeritus professor of law at Stanford, who has drafted major federal and state legislation regarding child welfare.
Wald said the larger question is whether the department had any safeguards in place and, if so, why they apparently failed.
“That’s the bigger issue,” he said.
Martinez also said she couldn’t comment on what actions have been taken to prevent similar situations in the future because her department was still discussing preventive measures.
One employee said they were not aware of any new policies or safeguards, but said at least some steps have been taken, including the addition of a new group of hotline workers who screen calls.
“They completely brought in a new team,” an employee said.
NOT THE FIRST – OR WORST – BACKLOG EVER
News of the neglected abuse reports comes about two years after a 2018 Madera County Grand Jury report revealed a backlog of more than 1,000 cases in the department.
That unrelated backlog was linked to an “exodus of social workers” from the department between 2014 and 2016, the report found.
“During the period when DSS (Department of Social Services) was lacking social workers, a large number of client cases were left open, and services were not provided for these children,” according to the report. “There were over 1,000 of these referrals, some up to two years old.”
Martinez inherited the backlog of the more than 1,000 referrals when she took over the department in June 2017.
As the most recent crisis developed in November last year, Martinez reminded her colleagues she helped resolve the prior backlog through “aggressive and continuous recruitment,” hiring more workers, and implementing other accountability measures. That only came after failed attempts to reduce the backlog by having social work supervisors work extra hours.