Child abuse: A problem all too real in today's world

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By Calen McKinney

To some, they might be just blue ribbons hanging on trees. To others, they mean so much more.

Local social services workers hung 228 blue ribbons on trees near the Miller Park gazebo Wednesday morning in recognition of April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

The ribbons stand for children in Taylor County who suffered some form of child abuse in 2005 and 2006.

Dee Dee Ward, a social services worker at the local Protection and Permanency Office, says April is geared toward promoting child abuse education and raising awareness. Her focus, she said, is on preventing the abuse.

Ward says blue ribbons are a symbol of National Child Abuse Prevention Month and the national campaign to prevent child abuse.

She says the campaign began when a woman in North Carolina placed a blue ribbon on the antenna of her car. Ward says the woman told those who asked that the ribbon symbolized her grandchildren who had been abused and one of them who died from the abuse.

Heather Barnes, victim's advocate at the Taylor County Attorney's Office, says another focus of the month is to make sure residents know that child abuse does happen and it should be reported.

She says child abuse and neglect can be anything from not feeding or clothing a child to not providing a safe and warm environment.

As a victim's advocate, Barnes' role is to meet with children who have been abused and prepare them for what they can expect from the court process and refer them to other agencies for additional help. She also works with local social services workers and law enforcement officers to refer cases for investigation.

April 13-19 is recognized as National Crime Victims' Rights Week.

The number of reported child abuse cases in Taylor County is up, according to statistics from the Taylor County Attorney's office and the statewide child abuse prevention organization Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky.

According to figures from Barnes' office, there were 78 child victims of physical or sexual abuse in Taylor County from October 2006 to September 2007.

From October 2005 to September 2006, Barnes said, there were 51.

According to Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky, a Lexington-based statewide child abuse prevention organization, there were more than 81,000 children in 65,820 cases in Kentucky reported to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services as being abused or neglected last year. Overall, 15,500 of those cases were substantiated. In 2006, 66,500 children were reported with more than 15,500 of those cases substantiated.

In Taylor County, there were 269 cases of child abuse involving 369 children reported last year, according to figures from the Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky organization. However, only 58 of the 269 cases were substantiated. Those cases involved 105 children.

In 2006, there were 202 Taylor County cases of child abuse involving 228 children reported. Only 49 of those 202 cases were substantiated, involving 74 children.

In 2005, according to Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky statistics, 224 child abuse cases were reported in Taylor County, involving 219 children.

Though Barnes says the number of reported child abuse cases is up, it's likely not a completely accurate number.

"This is not all, I'm sure," she said. "These are the ones I have documented, talked to or seen.

"There's a lot of cases that we don't even know about."

She says some may be afraid to report abuse because they fear getting involved and having to testify in court.

Barnes says she feels the increase might have something to do with her seeing parents who are abusing illegal drugs and prescription painkillers.

"That presents a problem," she said, "when you've got someone there [who] can't take care of their child."

Barnes said a child might start crying or need to be changed, and this might frustrate a parent who is abusing drugs. That frustration, she said, might resort to the parent abusing the child.

The child may then be removed from the home or placed with relatives, placing a strain on the child's new caregivers.

"A lot of times these kids don't have a voice," she said.

The month of April, she said, aims to give children their voices back.

Ward said child abuse concerns everyone.

"Child abuse and neglect [are] everybody's problem," she said, "and prevention is the best way to go."

She said people aren't usually purposively hurting their children, child abuse often comes from a lack of knowledge on how to raise children.

When parents have children, they don't come with an instruction book, she said, and just because someone is a parent doesn't mean they automatically know how to raise a child.

"That may not necessarily be true for everyone," she said.

As one of seven social services workers in Taylor County, Ward's job is to work with families once abuse or neglect has been found.

At that point, she said, she works with the family to get them help to prevent any future abuse in the form of counseling or parenting classes.

Children are sometimes removed from the home, Ward said, and she works with parents to get their children back.

Ward said she, too, believes child abuse reports have increased.

She says she's not sure if people today know more about how to report the abuse or they are simply more aware of the signs of abuse.

However, she said, she agrees with Barnes in that a higher rate of drug abuse might be a culprit.

To wrap up the month, Campbellsville University's Social Workers in Touch Can Help - S.W.I.T.C.H. - Club will host a candlelight vigil service for the victims of abuse on Saturday, April 26 at 7 p.m. in Miller Park.

One of the organizers of the event, Katie Purdom, a Campbellsville University junior and Carver School of Social Work student, said she has been working with Ward to raise child abuse awareness in hopes of getting the community involved.

Purdom said she knew child abuse existed but didn't know exactly how often it happened until she looked at the statistics.

"Child abuse is out there and we all need to work to try to prevent it."

One way to do that, she said, is by spreading the word about child abuse statistics and prevention during the month of April.

Child abuse isn't just physical abuse, she said, and learning about the causes and ways to prevent it could prevent a child from growing up and abusing his or her own children or spouse.

"[Learning about child abuse prevention] is something everybody can benefit from," she said.

"[The month] can open people's eyes," she said. "The numbers can change."

To report child abuse or neglect, call Ward at 465-3549 or Barnes at 469-9456. Ward says abuse can be reported after business hours by calling 911 or at any time by calling the state's child abuse toll-free hotline at (800) 752-6200 or Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky's hotline at (800) CHILDREN.

- Staff Writer Calen McKinney can be reached at 465-8111 Ext. 235 or by e-mail at reporter@cknj.com. Comment on this story at www.cknj.com.