Com­bat­ing child abuse: States, in­clud­ing Ge­or­gia, take ac­tion

Walker County Messenger - - Front Page - By Teresa Wiltz

Spurred by high­pro­file cases of en­dan­gered chil­dren and chron­i­cally over­worked case­work­ers, many states have taken steps this year to shield chil­dren from abuse and ne­glect, in­clud­ing adding case­work­ers, tight­en­ing re­port­ing re­quire­ments and ex­pand­ing the def­i­ni­tion of “abuse.”

Some states and cities are pour­ing more money into child pro­tec­tion agen­cies. In Texas, where the fos­ter care sys­tem was de­clared un­con­sti­tu­tional by a fed­eral judge in 2015, law­mak­ers al­lo­cated $4 bil­lion this year, up 17 per­cent from the pre­vi­ous bud­get, to shore up the state’s Depart­ment of Fam­ily and Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices, in­clud­ing hiring more case­work­ers.

In Florida, Tampa child wel­fare agen­cies got an ad­di­tional $4 mil­lion in state fund­ing to hire more so­cial work­ers. And in New Mex­ico, fol­low­ing the rape and mur­der of a 10-year-old girl last year, of­fi­cials in Al­bu­querque and Ber­nalillo coun­ties tripled the fund­ing they’d ear­marked for a new child-abuse in­ter­ven­tion pro­gram for at-risk fam­i­lies, to $3 mil­lion a year.

The plan is to cre­ate a safety net for chil­dren, said Ka­t­rina Hotrum, Ber­nalillo County’s be­hav­ioral health direc­tor, one that in­cludes ser­vices such as coun­sel­ing and sub­stance abuse treat­ment for par­ents who are not cov­ered by Med­i­caid.

In other states, there is in­creas­ing pres­sure to act: In the wake of the high-pro­file deaths of sev­eral chil­dren in state cus­tody, Kansas Gov. Sam Brown­back, a Repub­li­can, in June signed a law that will form a task force to study the state’s fos­ter care sys­tem and make rec­om­men­da­tions to over­haul it.

A 2016 audit found that the Kansas Depart­ment for Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices and pri­vate con­trac­tors failed to en­sure the safety of fos­ter care chil­dren and failed to in­ves­ti­gate al­leged abuse and ne­glect in a timely fash­ion.

In Mon­tana, where the num­ber of child abuse vic­tims jumped from 1,100 in 2011 to 1,900 in 2015, Gov. Steve Bul­lock, a Democrat, signed a law in April to cre­ate a com­mis­sion to study child abuse. In May, he signed a law that re­quires the state’s Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices to cre­ate a plan to re­duce the in­ci­dence of child abuse and ne­glect.

A 2016 re­port by the state’s Chil­dren’s Jus­tice Bu­reau found that the state didn’t have a con­sis­tent way to track re­ports child abuse and death. That year, 14 chil­dren died af­ter mul­ti­ple re­ports of abuse were filed to the state’s child wel­fare sys­tem.

Pennsylvania’s child wel­fare sys­tem has strug­gled for years to re­tain case­work­ers and keep up with the de­mand of help­ing chil­dren and fam­i­lies in need. Ear­lier this month, the Pennsylvania Au­di­tor Gen­eral called that state’s $1.8 bil­lion child wel­fare sys­tem “ap­palling” and said it fails to pro­tect chil­dren from abuse and ne­glect.

The re­port found that in 2016, there were 46 child abuse deaths and 79 “near fa­tal­i­ties,” com­pared to 49 deaths and 70 near fa­tal­i­ties the year be­fore. Na­tion­wide an es­ti­mated 1,670 chil­dren died from abuse or ne­glect in 2015, the most re­cent year for which na­tional data are avail­able.

In re­cent months, Ge­or­gia, In­di­ana, Mary­land, Ore­gon and Washington state also have en­acted laws that ei­ther ex­pand the def­i­ni­tions of abuse, es­tab­lish new pro­to­cols for state in­ves­ti­ga­tions of child abuse, or re­quire the pub­li­ca­tion of ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als about who is man­dated to re­port sus­pected abuse.

And leg­is­la­tion in the New York Leg­is­la­ture would re­quire test­ing young chil­dren for drugs if their par­ent or guardian is ar­rested on drug charges, and re­strict child pro­tec­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tors to no more than 15 cases a month.

In the past year, at least three New York City chil­dren have died from abuse af­ter case­work­ers failed to in­ves­ti­gate or act upon re­ports they were be­ing mis­treated.

A Con­found­ing Puz­zle

In some states, an uptick in child abuse cases has been the im­pe­tus for ac­tion.

In Mas­sachusetts, where the num­ber of child abuse vic­tims in­creased from 20,300 in 2011 to 31,100 in 2015, law­mak­ers this year in­tro­duced sev­eral pieces of child abuse leg­is­la­tion. Among them were pro­pos­als to cre­ate a child ne­glect reg­istry and to fur­ther de­fine abuse and ne­glect of chil­dren.

Dur­ing the same time pe­riod, the num­ber of child abuse vic­tims in Ge­or­gia jumped from 18,500 to 27,000. In May, Gov. Nathan Deal signed a law that ex­pands the def­i­ni­tion of child abuse to in­clude sex traf­fick­ing.

Ge­or­gia law­mak­ers also in­tro­duced bills meant to strengthen child abuse laws, such as a pro­posal to re­vise pro­ce­dures for how child mis­treat­ment is in­ves­ti­gated in cus­tody cases.

High-pro­file cases of chil­dren who’ve been killed or se­ri­ously in­jured may have helped to boost the num­ber of abuse re­ports.

The num­ber of mi­nors in the child wel­fare sys­tem rose to 7.2 mil­lion in 2015, up from 6.6 mil­lion in 2014, ac­cord­ing to data com­piled by the U.S. Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices. The num­ber of chil­dren with cases deemed se­ri­ous enough to merit an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by child pro­tec­tive ser­vices in­creased by 9 per­cent be­tween 2011 and 2015.

Mean­while the num­ber of child abuse deaths rose by 5 per­cent in 2015, the most re­cent year for which data are avail­able. In some states, the opi­oid epi­demic has con­trib­uted to an in­crease in fos­ter care chil­dren.

But some child wel­fare re­searchers ques­tion the fed­eral statis­tics on child abuse. They ar­gue that it’s im­pos­si­ble to get an ac­cu­rate pic­ture of child abuse rates be­cause state def­i­ni­tions of abuse and ne­glect dif­fer. In ad­di­tion, many states have changed ei­ther their stan­dards for re­port­ing abuse or the tech­nol­ogy they use to track their data.

Still, most states rec­og­nize four ma­jor types of “mal­treat­ment”: ne­glect, phys­i­cal abuse, psy­cho­log­i­cal abuse and sex­ual abuse. And the fed­eral Child Abuse Prevention and Treat­ment Act (CAPTA), reau­tho­rized in 2010, de­fines child abuse as “any re­cent act or fail­ure to act on the part of a par­ent or care­taker, which re­sults in death, se­ri­ous phys­i­cal or emo­tional harm, sex­ual abuse or ex­ploita­tion, or an act or fail­ure to act which presents an im­mi­nent risk of se­ri­ous harm” to the child.

The law sets min­i­mum stan­dards for states that ac­cept CAPTA fund­ing, but each state sets its own def­i­ni­tion of child abuse within its crim­i­nal statutes.

Com­bat­ing child abuse is a puz­zle that has be­dev­iled states and lo­cal­i­ties for decades, said Tracey Feild of the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, an ad­vo­cacy and re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion that works with state, county and city agen­cies to re­vise their child wel­fare sys­tems. Bal­anc­ing the in­ter­ests of pro­tect­ing chil­dren at risk and keep­ing fam­i­lies in­tact can be dif­fi­cult, Feild said.

Re­search has shown that adults who were abused as chil­dren can face men­tal and health is­sues, in­clud­ing a short­ened life span. But re­mov­ing chil­dren from the only fam­ily they know is trau­matic as well, Feild said.

And what con­sti­tutes say, ne­glect, can be highly sub­jec­tive, said Maria Mos­saides, Mas­sachusetts’ Child Ad­vo­cate, par­tic­u­larly among poor fam­i­lies.

“There is an over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of poor peo­ple in the child wel­fare sys­tem,” she said. “But you can­not take a child away just be­cause a fam­ily’s poor.”

Highly pub­li­cized cases like that of Jerry San­dusky, the Pennsylvania State Univer­sity foot­ball coach who was con­victed of rap­ing chil­dren for years, fre­quently prompt states to crack down, of­ten by re­quir­ing cer­tain peo­ple, such as teach­ers, firefighters or doc­tors, to re­port sus­pected child abuse.

Af­ter the San­dusky case, Pennsylvania in 2014 en­acted leg­is­la­tion ex­pand­ing the def­i­ni­tion of child abuse and re­port­ing re­quire­ments.

As a re­sult, child wel­fare case­work­ers suf­fer from whiplash, said David Finkel­hor, direc­tor of the Crimes Against Chil­dren Re­search Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of New Hamp­shire.

“Ev­ery time a child dies or gets se­ri­ously in­jured, [case­work­ers are] sud­denly sub­jected to a huge amount of press scru­tiny,” said Finkel­hor, who started to study child abuse and ne­glect is­sues four decades ago. “Some­one wants to come in and re­or­ga­nize ev­ery­thing and fire the scape­goats.”

And some states have taken a con­ser­va­tive stance for some time now, not want­ing to take any chances. In New Hamp­shire, for ex­am­ple, any person with a rea­son to sus­pect child abuse is re­quired to re­port it to the Di­vi­sion for Chil­dren, Youth and Fam­i­lies.

Mas­sachusetts, which has seen a bump in child abuse re­ports in re­cent years, re­quires hos­pi­tals to file an abuse and ne­glect re­port for any new mother who tests pos­i­tive for drugs.

Still, leg­is­la­tion can only do so much, and in­creas­ing the num­ber of re­ported cases causes “chaos,” fur­ther bur­den­ing child wel­fare agen­cies that are al­ready strain­ing at the seams, Feild said.

Best Prac­tices

In­creas­ingly, states are try­ing to dif­fer­en­ti­ate child mal­treat­ment cases along two lines: Ba­sic ne­glect cases, which ac­count for about three­quar­ters of child abuse cases, and crim­i­nal cases, Feild said.

Child abuse cases can be pro­cessed through the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, she said. But with ne­glect cases, child wel­fare agen­cies try to keep fam­i­lies to­gether, us­ing an “al­ter­na­tive re­sponse” ap­proach, which treats ne­glect as some­thing dis­tinct from out and out abuse. In­stead, agen­cies pro­vide fam­i­lies with ser­vices, from coun­sel­ing to parental classes to ad­dic­tion treat­ment.

At the height of the crack epi­demic in the early ’90s, child wel­fare of­fi­cials in Cuya­hoga County, one of Ohio’s largest metro coun­ties, de­cided to take a new ap­proach to child abuse and mal­treat­ment.

The plan was to keep chil­dren safe at home with their fam­i­lies as their par­ents worked out their is­sues with in­ten­sive in­ter­ven­tion pro­vided by the county, said Cyn­thia Weiskit­tel, direc­tor of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices. The county used data to track fam­i­lies and their needs.

Strug­gling par­ents could be paired with a re­cov­ery coach who has ex­pe­ri­ence with drug ad­dic­tion.

Today, the num­ber of chil­dren in cus­tody is about a third of what it was 20 years ago, Weiskit­tel said.

“You need to make sure your staff is re­ally well trained in how to ap­proach peo­ple,” she said. “At the end of the day, if what you’re do­ing isn’t put­ting a child in an un­safe sit­u­a­tion, you’re al­lowed to par­ent the way you want to par­ent.”

Brooke Sky­lar Richard­son, ap­pear­ing in crim­i­nal court in Franklin, Ohio, has been charged with the mur­der of her new­born in­fant. Many states, Ge­or­gia among them, have taken ac­tion this year to com­bat child abuse and ne­glect.© The Associated Press

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