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2017-03-15 / News

Child Abuse in Blount County:

perspectives on the problem
by Ron Gholson

This article is about child abuse – neglect, assault, rape, sodomy, deviant sexual intercourse, soliciting, pornography, trafficking, and other forms of pathological behavior – committed against children by parents, grandparents, other family members, and non-family members into whose care those children have been entrusted – teachers, coaches, friends, and assorted other caregivers. The institution mainly responsible for it boils down to one: the dysfunctional family. And it’s getting worse.

The article is not dainty – not intended to be. It’s not sensational, it’s matter-of-fact because it is a matter of fact.

This is the first in a series of articles, focusing primarily, but not exclusively on Blount County. This first article is introductory in nature, sketching the extent of the problem, the range of defining aspects of it, and highlighting the roles of major agencies involved in dealing with it.


DHR director Catherine Denard, right, discusses case reports with child abuse and neglect supervisor Alicia Tolbert. About half of DHR’s workload comes from handling child abuse reports. Those reports have more than doubled since 2013, topping 700 in 2016. DHR director Catherine Denard, right, discusses case reports with child abuse and neglect supervisor Alicia Tolbert. About half of DHR’s workload comes from handling child abuse reports. Those reports have more than doubled since 2013, topping 700 in 2016. It will be followed by articles on investigation of child abuse reports, interviews with recovered child abuse victims, and the role of DHR’s (Department of Human Resources) foster parent and adoption programs in dealing with child abuse as a social problem exacerbated by increasing family dysfunction and disintegration.

The Children’s Center tally of new cases handled annually provides a view of the extent of reported abuse cases in the county that rise to the level of criminal charges.


Jim Ed Clayton Jim Ed Clayton 2011 – 89
2012 – 98
2013 –135
2014 –189
2015 –154
2016 –135

These numbers include all types of abuse, according to children's center executive director Jim Ed Clayton. The great majority of children’s center’s cases – on the order of 95 percent – involve sexual abuse, reflecting the fact that the children’s center is organized specifically to deal with sexual abuse prosecution, Clayton said. About 5 percent involve severe physical abuse. Only a very small number involve neglect severe enough to require the perpetrator be charged with a crime.

Aspects of child abuse: DHR

DHR is a state social services agency that provides for the protection and well-being of at-risk children and adults. It is the front line for battling child abuse and its consequences. It receives and investigates reports of child neglect and abuse, evaluates each case, determines appropriate action, initiates removal to care by relatives or foster care if necessary, and provides counseling or other measures as appropriate. Information in this section is summarized from an interview with Blount County DHR director Catherine Denard.


Not only abused children themselves, but entire families are often affected by abuse. Children’s center therapist Jamie Hill works with both, to get feelings expressed, anger resolved, guilt reduced, and experiences normalized that violate the very idea of “normal” – in the effort to lead both child and family toward healthy readjustment to difficult life circumstances. Best predictor of recovery, Hill says, is a consistent, stable, supporting caregiver. Toughest challenge is young children whose parents are drug addicts who have subjected them to unspeakable experiences. They’re often deeply angry, hostile, distrusting – and increasing in numbers. “They really struggle,” Hill said. Not only abused children themselves, but entire families are often affected by abuse. Children’s center therapist Jamie Hill works with both, to get feelings expressed, anger resolved, guilt reduced, and experiences normalized that violate the very idea of “normal” – in the effort to lead both child and family toward healthy readjustment to difficult life circumstances. Best predictor of recovery, Hill says, is a consistent, stable, supporting caregiver. Toughest challenge is young children whose parents are drug addicts who have subjected them to unspeakable experiences. They’re often deeply angry, hostile, distrusting – and increasing in numbers. “They really struggle,” Hill said. DHR areas of endeavor

The centerpiece and beating heart of the operational protocol employed by The Blount County Children’s Center is the forensic interview, conducted by Debbie McCain. Its purpose is two-fold: (1) to elicit from the abused child the story of “what happened” to them – a narrative sufficient for evidentiary purposes to be used in prosecuting offenders, and (2) to do so without further traumatizing the child with repeated re-tellings and aggressive interrogation. The interview itself is a virtual art form based on broadly non-directive methods, one of which can be seen in the photo – use of coloring to give the child an alternate conscious activity to allay the fear, stress, anxiety, and/or freezing up which might accompany a toodirect focus on basic details of abuse. While the interviewer and child talk quietly in a child-friendly interview room, a half-dozen (more or less) members of a multi-disciplinary team observe the interview in real time over closed-circuit television in another room. Team members represent various disciplines – law enforcement, Department of Human Resources (DHR), the district attorney’s office, mental health professional, etc., all of whom need first hand-information. They focus not only of what is said, but how it’s said, non-verbal cues such as body language, and other behavior in order to perform their respective roles, ioncluding helping the child return to normal life. This event is the foundation for much of all that follows in the process of dealing with child sexual abuse.The centerpiece and beating heart of the operational protocol employed by The Blount County Children’s Center is the forensic interview, conducted by Debbie McCain. Its purpose is two-fold: (1) to elicit from the abused child the story of “what happened” to them – a narrative sufficient for evidentiary purposes to be used in prosecuting offenders, and (2) to do so without further traumatizing the child with repeated re-tellings and aggressive interrogation. The interview itself is a virtual art form based on broadly non-directive methods, one of which can be seen in the photo – use of coloring to give the child an alternate conscious activity to allay the fear, stress, anxiety, and/or freezing up which might accompany a toodirect focus on basic details of abuse. While the interviewer and child talk quietly in a child-friendly interview room, a half-dozen (more or less) members of a multi-disciplinary team observe the interview in real time over closed-circuit television in another room. Team members represent various disciplines – law enforcement, Department of Human Resources (DHR), the district attorney’s office, mental health professional, etc., all of whom need first hand-information. They focus not only of what is said, but how it’s said, non-verbal cues such as body language, and other behavior in order to perform their respective roles, ioncluding helping the child return to normal life. This event is the foundation for much of all that follows in the process of dealing with child sexual abuse.
• Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), providing food assistance, formerly called the food stamps program.


Members of multi-disciplinary team discuss forensic interview on a case-by-case basis. Clockwise from left, Nicole Grigsby, DHR; Teresa Lindsey, district attorney’s office; children’s center staff members Michelle Sargent, Aleyda Villegas, and Debbie McCain. Members of multi-disciplinary team discuss forensic interview on a case-by-case basis. Clockwise from left, Nicole Grigsby, DHR; Teresa Lindsey, district attorney’s office; children’s center staff members Michelle Sargent, Aleyda Villegas, and Debbie McCain. • Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), providing monetary support to parents with children (half of cases are for child or children only).

• Adult protective services, focusing on elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

• Child support, assisting custodial parents in obtaining child support payments.

• Child welfare, addressing foster care and adoption services, and child protective services dealing with child neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse.

Aspects of child abuse operations

• About half of DHR’s workload comes from handling child abuse and related cases; DHR averages 55-60 new reports of such cases per month or about 700 new cases a year since 2015; DHR maintains a running average of about 90 cases per month of children placed temporarily with relatives for protective care, and a running average of about 100 cases per month of children placed in protective foster care.

• New child abuse cases reported to Blount County DHR have more than doubled since 2013.

• Most new child abuse cases reported to DHR result, after preliminary investigation, in removing the child from the household the same day it is reported, and placing them with other relatives or in foster care. The reason: because of a clear and present threat to their safety – either the probability of being abused again by someone living in the household, the threat to their safety posed by exposure to meth or other dangerous drugs, or other manifest dangers.

• Other manifest dangers examples: severe unsanitary conditions such as dog feces in beds; presence of drugs in food prep and eating areas; children seeing parents doing drugs and after effects; children being present when adults are being threatened with firearms; children ingesting drugs; children being choked, struck, burned with cigarettes, and other casual assaults; parents having wrecks while on drugs, with children in the vehicle; life-threatening physical abuse.

Perceptions of the job

• “People see DHR as only wanting to take kids away,” Denard said. “That’s not right. Keeping them in the home with their real parents is the best thing for the children – except when it’s not. If the home is where the danger is, and the parents are allowing it or causing it, we get children out of that environment. When DHR removes a child from the home, there’s a very good reason.”

• The job of DHR workers handling child abuse is extraordinarily difficult, even dangerous, Denard said. They are charged with following up reports of abuse and developing information needed to determine how to handle them. Criminal behavior may or may not be involved in each case, and that decision must be made and documented.

Workers endure, at worst, threats to life and property, not to mention routine long hours, call-outs in the middle of the night, and constant high-stress conditions as standard operating procedure. Workers may have to put their own wellbeing on the line – and do so – to protect children from further harm. “It’s not just a job – it’s a calling,” Denard said.

Aspects of child abuse: The Blount County Children’s Center

The Blount County Children’s Center is a tax-exempt charitable organization working to prevent child abuse and to help those victimized, along with their families. A basic element of its mission is to prosecute child abuse offenders. Toward that end, it provides a friendly, home-like setting where children may tell their story to a trained interviewer, observed by a multidisciplinary team made up of all agencies who need to hear the story for further action, thus reducing the child’s stress and trauma from repeated re-tellings. The center helps arrange medical exams if needed and provides therapeutic counseling to children and their families as appropriate. The center also conducts preventive programs for all children in public schools in the county, as well as informational presentations to parents, civic, and other community groups. Information in this section is summarized from interviews with children’s center executive director Jim Ed Clayton.

Incidence

• Most cases – 95 percent – of child abuse cases handled by the Children’s Center are for sexual abuse, Clayton said. About 5 percent are for severe physical abuse. Severe child neglect is rare, but not unknown, he said.

• Nine out of 10 cases of abuse go unreported, according to Clayton. Reasons: The offender is usually someone, often a family member, who the victimized child knows and possibly loves. The child knows or suspects that reporting will result in getting the offender in serious trouble.

• In some cases the abuse goes on for years. The child may grow habituated to it, it may decline in frequency, and a “what’s-the-point-in-causing-a-problem now?” attitude may develop.

Children’s center areas of endeavor

• Provides compassionate sanctuary for children and families caught up in the stress and turmoil of abuse.

• Conducts a “finding out what happened” process (forensic interview) with a single, non-threatening session conducted with the child by a professional interviewer and followed collaboratively at another site by representatives of all agencies who will be involved in subsequent processes of investigation, counseling, protection, placement, and prosecution.

• Develops information to support prosecution of offenders.

• Strengthens survivors – families and children– in the aftermath of varied traumatic experiences, with professional counseling provided free of charge: includes sexual, physical and emotional abuse, as well as victims of rape and domestic violence.

• Conducts abuse prevention sessions to teach children in the schools how to recognize abuse and protect themselves from it. Also gives general information presentations to adult and community audiences to alert them how to recognize signs of abuse and what to do about it. Clayton said such programs have been provided in county schools since 1983.

Risk factors for child abuse

• “The number 1 risk factor is drug use by adults,” Clayton said.

• Mental illness, usually of the offender, but might apply to the abused child as well.

• Instability of family and family life – a changing lineup of acquaintances, relatives, and others sharing the home, activities, sleeping arrangements, etc. from time to time.

• Economic challenges – inadequate income and resulting combination of two or more families in one residence to share resources.

• High school graduation: abuse offending is more common among those who do not complete high school.

Red flags for possible abuse

• Child using language beyond his/her years; no examples here, but if you’re alert you’ll know it when you hear it, Clayton said.

• Child talking about “gifts” gotten from Uncle Henry – or conspicuously not talking about gifts that have mysteriously appeared from an unknown source.

• Child hinting about “secrets” someone told him/her not to tell anyone about, or innocently saying he/she can’t tell about something because “it’s a secret.”

Typical child abuse scenarios

• Both parents work; grandparents live close by; child goes to maw-maw and paw-paw’s house each afternoon after school until a parent picks him/her up after work; child gets abused by the grandfather who “helps with homework” upstairs while grandmother prepares supper in the kitchen; arrangement continues for a period of time until child realizes it’s wrong and tells a teacher at school; teacher reports to DHR as required by law. Alternate scenario: same as above, except grandmother goes grocery shopping once a week in the afternoon, leaving the child with grandfather, who takes the child for a walk in the woods away from the house, and grooms or threatens the child to facilitate continued abuse.

• An adult family friend or relative loses his job and needs a place to stay temporarily until he can find another job; he volunteers to babysit occasionally while the parents go out to dinner or go to a movie, etc.; takes advantage of child while they’re gone. Alternate scenario: relative takes child to a movie, out for a pizza, and other kid-friendly activities, using the time alone to abuse the child; often accompanied by gifts to encourage or bribe the child to keep “our little secret.” Red flag for child-oriented organizations (e.g. recreational , music, scouts, school church, etc.)

All such organizations should have written guidelines in place to protect both children and adults from exposure to situations where abuse could occur, according to Clayton. Examples: adults should never be alone with a child; doors to a room where an adult and child might have occasion to be alone briefly together, such as a one-on-one learning, coaching, counseling, or practice session, should be transparent. The children’s center can provide a quick reference primer on the basics.

Aspects of child abuse: the DA’s office

• Most frequently charged child sex abuse offenses during District Attorney Pamela Casey’s term of office: possession of obscene material (involving a child); sexual abuse of a child under 12; sodomy, 1st degree; rape, 1st degree; enticing a child to enter a vehicle/house; child abuse/ aggravated child abuse. Casey estimated that about 100 offenders have been charged with some form of child sex abuse since her term of office began in 2011.

• “Most of the child sex abuse cases we prosecute in our county involve a parent, stepparent, or grandparent who is the perpetrator,” Casey wrote. “We also see a lot of mother’s boyfriends or family friends who have open access to a child.”

• “Child sex abuse prosecutions rank at the top of my list of priorities,” Casey continued, “along with violent crimes such as murders and rapes. If I had to choose one type of crime to prosecute for the rest of my career, I would choose the sex abuse cases ... I know I can never undo what was done to them, but I will do everything I can to make sure they know someone stood up and fought for them.”

• Hurdles in prosecuting child abuse cases: (1) Community itself doesn’t want to acknowledge sex crimes against children. (2) People can’t believe a father would molest his own daughter, or a grandfather would rape his granddaughter. (3) The amount of time that passes between initial report of abuse and trial of the offender – three to four years in some cases because Blount County has only one circuit judge – is a serious problem, Casey said. A lot can happen – both to the child and to the evidence – over that length of time.

• Disclosures of child abuse are increasing, perhaps because of increased media attention. Victims increasingly realize that if they report abuse, action will be taken.

• What needs to be done to address this burgeoning social problem? Casey’s answer: “The world needs more Jesus. Jesus said,’Let the little children come unto me and hinder them not, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’”

How can the county and the general public contribute to reducing problems associated with child abuse?

Denard said there are at least three major ways county institutions and individuals can help.

(1) Report. Report. Report. “The main thing you can do, if you suspect a child is being abused is to report it. No one can help if no one knows it’s happening,” Denard said. Call DHR at 274-5200 during normal business hours. After hours, call the Blount County Sheriff’s Department at 625-4127. You can also call 911.

(2) In-patient substance abuse facilities are badly needed to provide intensive treatment for addicted parents, among others, in the county. A significant proportion of children at risk for child abuse arises from the population of substance-addicted parents in the county.

(3) Possible breakthrough development: DHR is in the process of developing and promoting a program of family-to-family assistance for the population of parents and children at risk for child abuse and other problems associated with dysfunctional and deteriorating families where the absence of parenting skills and proper behavior is a major cause. Volunteer community groups and families will be needed to provide mentoring and parental and family role modeling. The object is to stabilize families and enable them to perform basic family functions such as planning, budgeting, child emotional support, and other activities routine to normal family life. Training will be provided to prepare volunteer families to provide support in various areas of need. The program is being implemented now. Volunteers are needed. Call 274-5200 for more information on family-to-family assistance.

Foster parents are also needed. Call the same number to inquire.

Metrics and magnitudes

Child abuse comes in three general forms, according to the National Children’s Alliance. Of reported cases, neglect makes up 80 percent, physical abuse 18 percent, and sexual abuse 9 percent. Some children suffer from more than one form. Local percentages vary.

Here are a few descriptive metrics on the phenomenon nationally, statewide, and locally.

700,000

children are abused annually in the U. S., according to figures cited by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families in 2014, the most recent year for national data. For the same year, 10,699 were abused in Alabama.

1,564

died from abuse and neglect. The number of fatalities in Alabama was 17 that year. One fatality has occurred in Blount County in the last two years from physical abuse. Injuries to children from physical beatings are not rare.

2,900,000

children received protective services (investigating reports of abuse, providing family referrals to community resources, providing in-home services to children and families, providing out-of-home placement when necessary to protect victims, providing foster care placement) from state governmental agencies like Alabama’s Department of Human Resources (DHR) in 2014. The comparable figure for Alabama was 60,385.

78%

of abusers were the child’s parent or parents; 90 percent of abusers were related to the child in some way.

74%

of abused children were 12 years old or younger, according to National Children’s Alliance 2015 national statistics; the remaining 26 percent were between ages 13 and 18. By age, incidence of child abuse nationally breaks down as follows:

37 percent – aged 6 and under;
37 percent aged 7 to 12; and
26 percent, aged 13 to 17.

90%

of cases handled by Blount County Children’s Center, approximately, are girls; 10 percent are boys.

Blount County indicators

The CAN (Child Abuse and Neglect) Report shows an increase of nearly 120 percent over four years in the number of child abuse and neglect cases reported in Blount County for investigation by DHR.

2013 – 322
2014 – 512
2015 – 693
2016 – 703

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