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Without limits

Child abuse occurs in all segments of society

Child abuse occurs in all segments of society

April 14, 2006|by KRISTIN WILSON

You happen to notice that your son's friend is constantly complaining of unexplained bumps and bruises.

You pass a mom in a store, losing her temper and threatening her child with punishment once they return home.

You don't know why, but something seems odd about how your daughter's friend reacts to adult men.

They are the suspicions that lead you to wonder if a child is a victim of child abuse or neglect. But what do you do when you don't know that something is actually wrong?

"I would report it and let someone with the expertise decide whether it meets the criteria" for child abuse or neglect, says Stephanie Andrews, acting supervisor of the Washington County Child Advocacy Center.

"If it's enough to make you feel uncomfortable, you need to file a report," adds Teresa Thorn, program manager of the Hagerstown-based advocacy center known as Safe Place.

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The child advocacy center is at the forefront of efforts to reduce the incidences of child abuse and neglect in Washington County.

The county ranks sixth-highest among Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore City for the number of child protective services investigations, according to the most recent information from the Maryland Department of Human Resources' Child Protective Services. Social workers and educators believe the more people learn about the signs of child abuse and what resources are available within the community will help prevent abuse.

A total of 1,719 investigations took place in the county between July 2004 and June 2005, according to the state data.

More than 1,000 of those cases were related to child neglect; 362 reports were investigated for physical abuse; 225 were investigated for sexual abuse; and 3 investigations were related to mental injury.

Of those investigations, credible evidence that abuse or neglect occurred was found in 406 instances or 23.6 percent of the investigated reports.

Reporting child abuse requires one phone call to the Department of Social Services, explains Andrews. It is a phone call concerned people should not be afraid to make, advocates say.

"When in doubt you should report it, as long as you have a reasonable suspicion," says Howard Davidson, the director of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. "You don't have to be sure."

When people make good faith reports of suspected abuse, they are protected by the law and are immune from civil liability and criminal penalty, according to information on Maryland's Child Protective Services Web site.

Once a report of suspected child abuse or neglect is given, officials determine whether an investigation is needed. Many times, the county's department of social services will decide the report does not warrant an investigation and the complaint goes no further, Andrews says.

But if an investigation is made, social workers have the opportunity to evaluate the whole picture of a child's living environment to determine whether that child is safe and protected, Andrews says.

Investigations involve meeting with the child and caregivers named in the report, Andrews explains. Social workers assess a child's complete environment to determine whether that child is safe.

According to state regulation, if credible evidence is found that abuse occurred, the investigation must include a determination of the nature, extent and cause of the neglect or abuse, a determination of who is responsible for the neglect or abuse and the name, age and condition of every child in the household.

Of the 75 percent of investigations that don't find credible evidence that abuse or neglect occurred, many times it is found that a caregiver is in need of more assistance to properly take care of the child or children. Social workers can help by educating caregivers about better ways to handle children or getting the caregiver in touch with various social services such as day care, emergency food or shelter, parenting classes, counseling or housing assistance.

Only when children are in imminent danger of serious harm or death or when the child's safety is compromised is a child taken out of his or her home, Andrews says.

"Even the best parents need help sometimes," says Barbara Rawn, senior prevention consultant with Prevent Child Abuse America, a national, nonprofit organization. "My personal feeling is that parents want to be successful, but many parents don't know how."

An intervention from social workers with child protective services "could be the tipping point for that family to really get healthy and for them to step back a little bit," Rawn says. "That is the job of protective services: to help that family address what their needs are and get (them) in touch with the referral services in their community."

It's important to realize that child abuse and neglect can occur in all segments of society, Rawn says. In many cases, child abuse and neglect occurs because adults are under extreme stress, have problems with a job or housing, are dealing with illness or loss or have an addiction problem.

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