Is there more child abuse nowdays, or just more reporting of it? Both, says Children’s Center head

GUEST EDITORIAL

Is there more child abuse nowdays, or does it just seem that way? Lately people have been asking me this question. People wonder if social media, talk radio, and 24-hour news stations make it seem like there is more child abuse – or if more children are actually being abused. I am writing this to offer my perspective.

First, the statistics. Child abuse reports in the U.S. have actually declined slowly and steadily since 1993. The number of reports dropped from 1,032,000 in 1993 to 686,000 in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a 33-percent decrease. Child safety advocates are very pleased with this national trend.

However, experiences differ from community to community. In fact, in Blount County, instead of a decrease, we have experienced a dramatic rise in reports. Our Department of Human Resources (DHR) office has experienced an increase from 337 child-abuse reports in 2011 to 563 reports in 2014. Here at the Children’s Center, where we work with DHR, the district attorney, and other agencies regarding sex abuse cases and serious physical abuse cases, we have seen our annual number of cases go from 89 to 180 over the last four years.

You might be asking yourself,“Is it possible that the amount of abuse is the same, but adults are doing a better job of reporting it?” Yes. In fact, the rate of reporting is likely higher, for three reasons.

First, Alabama’s Mandatory Reporter Law was expanded in 2013. In addition to the previous list of mandated reporters (healthcare workers, daycare workers, teachers, etc.) the law now includes all non-teacher school employees like bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and administrative employees. The revised law also states that child-abuse reports must be made directly to DHR or law enforcement, not merely to one’s boss.

Second, our local schools are training their employees better regarding signs and abuse and insisting that their employees report any suspected abuse. The Blount County Board of Education was one of the first in the state to require their employees to complete an online child-protection training course through Alabama DHR.

Lastly, the general public is more aware and more educated about the need to report suspected child abuse. Shows like To Catch a Predator and Law and Order SVU have raised awareness; and child safety advocates have used social media, billboards, and other methods to encourage the public to report suspected abuse.

But I believe that in addition to an increased rate of reporting, there is more actual abuse nowdays. There are many reasons for this – too many to list here, but I’ll name a few. First, the growth in Internet technology has given pedophiles access to more victims. Child molesters, usually posing as children themselves, patrol the Internet looking for victims. They strike up a “friendship” through an online game or an app, win the child’s trust, then seduce the child into sharing sexual photos or videos – or to meet them in person.

Second, many children and most teens now have phones, so the Internet is at their fingertips all the time. This makes them constantly exposed to dangers from across the room, down the street, or on the other side of the world. It is very difficult for parents to monitor and protect their children from these threats. In Blount County, almost every child-abuse case involves a phone in some way.

Third, because of the recent hard economic times, many adults and children are living with adults and older teens other than their parents and siblings. Sometimes, the child hardly knows the person living in the next room. Sometimes, that person is a registered sex offender – one of the 125 currently living in Blount County.

While these extra-family living arrangements may be economically beneficial for some parents, they expose their children to an increased danger of potential abuse.

Lastly, drugs are a serious factor. Children whose parents use drugs are at much greater risk for abuse – physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect.

In summary, child abuse reports are declining in the U.S. but increasing dramatically in Blount County. Whatever the official reporting statistics may be, however, they do not reflect the whole picture, because child abuse is a very under-reported crime. Researchers estimate that most children who have been abused – as many as 9 out of 10 – never tell anyone.

Statistics can be confusing, but we can probably all agree that as long as one child is being abused, we as a community should rally to stop it with all the resources we can muster. Here in Blount County, we are fortunate to have a team of agencies passionately committed to protecting children from abuse. We at the Children’s Center are proud to be a part of that team.

We believe that protecting children requires awareness, education, and planning. Every youth-serving organization needs policies regarding child protection. If yours does not, we can help. Give us a call at 274-7226. It would be my pleasure to speak to your church, business, or civic organization about ways to better protect our children.

Protecting our children is a responsibility for each of us. We have no greater treasure.

The Blount Countian asked Jim Ed Clayton to comment on this subject, highlighting the extent to which protection of children from sexual predators has become more difficult in recent years due to the bewildering array of new technology that facilitates the stalking of children. Clayton is executive director of the Blount County Children’s Center, whose primary mission is to deal with sexual abuse of children.