Month focuses on preventing child abuse

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By Calen McKinney

It can be an unexplained bruise that wasn't there the day before, or a withdrawn behavior from a normally happy child.

Last year, there were 144 children abused or neglected in Taylor County. That is more than twice the amount in 2010, at 68.

April is recognized each year as National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and the topic is something local law enforcement and social services workers deal with on a daily basis.

State law says an abused child is one who suffers sexual, emotional or physical abuse or doesn't have the clothing, shelter, education or medical care they need.

Campbellsville Police Chief Tim Hazlette said his officers typically investigate more reports of sexual abuse involving children than physical abuse. But they also see reports of children not having enough food to eat or guardians using drugs in front of them. Hazlette said abuse also might happen because the child's parent or caretaker is simply too immature to take care of a child.

"Normally what we run into is neglect," he said. "I guess if it happens one time, it's too many."

Hazlette said it's also common for his officers to receive complaints about abuse only to investigate and find that what happened isn't really abuse, but a parent punishing their children. He said parents are allowed to discipline their children by spanking them.

"That, in the minds of a lot of people, that's child abuse," he said. "The law allows you to discipline your children."

For example, Hazlette said, his officers often investigate calls of motorists seeing a parent disciplining their children in a grocery store by screaming at them or using physical force.

"There's a difference between discipline than child abuse," he said. "Child abuse means different things to different people."

Sometimes, however, he said, children can effectively run the home and exert control over the parents.

"It's unfortunate, but it does happen," he said.

But officers investigate each report to see if the report meets criteria to be substantiated as abuse. If that happens, the person accused of abusing the child can be arrested and charged and the case will proceed through the court system. There are many people there to help victims along the way, he said, from officers to counselors to victim's advocates.

Hazlette said his officers can, and have, removed children from their home, but they typically call employees from the Cabinet for Health & Family Services.

"They're really the experts in that field," he said.

Anthony Harris, ongoing case management office chief at the local Protection and Permanency office, said his office gets reports of child abuse in Taylor County on a daily basis. All reports are confidential, he said, and are investigated.

While determining frequency of reporting is subjective, Harris says he believes there are more child abuse reports made today than in years past. And, as police have found, the majority are neglect cases.

Neglect can be not having enough to eat, being unkempt or being found persistently in a soiled diaper.

"There are a number of indicators," he said.

Hazlette said there are many opportunities for children to report that they are being abused, from telling a teacher, counselor or police officer.

His officers will soon begin an Adopt a School program at the local schools after spring break, which is this week. More about Adopt a School will be printed in an upcoming issue.

Taylor County Sheriff's Office has school resource officers at each of the schools in the Taylor County School System. Taylor County Sheriff Allen Newton said his officers do have children report to them that they are being abused.

"They'll tell somebody," he said.

But most of the complaints his deputies investigate, he said, come from social service workers. And the majority of them involve a custody issue, such as one parent making a complaint against the other.

While it can be hard to detect, Hazlette said there are sometimes physical signs that a child is being abused, including unexplained bruises.

"There are things you just have to look for," he said.

Newton said a child who is being abused also might act shy and timid. He said that can be an indicator a child is being emotionally abused.

"It can change them a lot socially," he said.

Hazlette said anyone who suspects a child is being abused should report it, either to police or to Harris' office.

"It's better to report it than it is to intervene," he said. "In their mind, that may be abuse, but it might not be."

For more information about child abuse, visit the Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky website at www.pcaky.org.

To report abuse, call Harris' office at (270) 465-3549, police at (270) 465-4122 or the toll-free Kentucky child abuse hotline at (800) 752-6200.