Abuse, neglect plague area

April 14, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

The children come to Safeplace in Hagerstown with bruises and broken hearts, the helpless victims of the child abuse and neglect that continues to plague the Tri-State area.

Attention is being focused on the problem during April, which is National Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month.

"The average citizen doesn't know about the kinds of child abuse happening in this community," said Carrol Springer, assistant director of adult, child and family services at the Washington County Department of Social Services.

The county in 2000 had the third-highest child abuse and neglect rate in the state, according to the Maryland's 2001 Kids Count Factbook.


Since last year, reports of abuse and neglect have increased 10 percent in Washington County and the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, while such reports remain steady at about 60 per month in Franklin County, Pa., social services workers in all three states said.

"Child abuse is always there," said Debbie Pheil, assistant administrator for Franklin County Children and Youth Services. "We need all our systems to work together to keep kids safe and families strong."

At the Washington County Department of Social Services' child-friendly Child Advocacy Unit, or Safeplace, social workers, therapists, doctors, police and prosecutors cooperate to investigate allegations of severe physical and sexual abuse and bring justice to abused children, Program Manager Teresa Thorn said.

"If they feel safe, they're more likely to disclose what's happened to them," she said.

Safeplace served 413 children - 262 for sexual abuse and 151 for physical abuse - from October 2001 to September 2002.

More than 1,980 cases of suspected child abuse and neglect were reported to the social services agency in fiscal 2002 - an increase of about 8 percent from the year before, said Melissa Cline, program manager for Child Protective Services.

The reports included 921 cases of suspected neglect, 370 cases of suspected physical abuse and 219 cases of suspected sexual abuse, Cline said.

Child protective services workers completed 1,505 child abuse and neglect investigations last year, finding evidence of abuse and/or neglect in 360 of those cases, Cline said.

Social workers in Franklin County investigated 781 reports of abuse and neglect in 2002, including 193 cases that met the criteria for child abuse under state law, Pheil said. Nearly 600 cases fell under the category of child neglect, she said.

The abuse cases included 63 incidents of physical abuse, 70 incidents of sexual abuse and 8 incidents of mental abuse or imminent risk, she said.

Details about the remaining 54 child abuse investigations weren't available because they were conducted in foster home and residential treatment facilities by state workers, Pheil said.

"Child abuse is certainly a significant problem in the community that we need to address," Cline said.

Problem worsens

And it seems to be getting worse.

So far this year, the number of child abuse and neglect reports has risen by 10 percent in Washington County - a disturbing increase also noted in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, said Kathy Boylan, community services manager for the West Virginia Bureau of Children and Families' office in Martinsburg.

Her six employees in Berkeley County, W.Va., investigated about 100 cases of suspected abuse and neglect in March alone, Boylan said. She attributed the caseload increase to population growth in the Eastern Panhandle.

Cline and Springer credit the increasing number of child abuse and neglect reports in Washington County to a number of factors, including:

  • A heightened awareness that's prompting more people to report the problem.

  • An increase in the number of local domestic violence cases.

  • An alarming teen pregnancy rate.

  • Drug and alcohol abuse problems.

  • Increased stress associated with the nation's economic downturn.

Most reports come from county schools, but an increasing number of medical professionals and private citizens are also reporting suspected child abuse and neglect, Cline said. More child abuse and neglect has been reported in the Hancock area since the Department of Social Services stationed a caseworker there, Cline said.

The increase in child abuse and neglect reports might also be linked to a rise in the number of local domestic violence cases, she said.

"Domestic violence impacts children. Frequently, when there is domestic violence there is also child abuse and animal abuse," Cline said.

Children were present in 429 of the 1,038 domestic violence incidents to which police responded in 2002, according to the Washington County Family Violence Council. State, county and city police responded to 963 domestic violence calls - 418 with children present - in 2001.

An increasing number of children are trying to protect their battered parents, Cline said.

Teen pregnancy

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