“Unfortunately, child abuse is not novel to our nation, to our state and to our county …,” Averett tells the crowd gathered Tuesday to mark Child Abuse Awareness Month.
From December 2012 to November 2013, Georgia’s Office of Child Advocate listed 1,229 reports of maltreatment in Bartow County, she said.
There were 723 investigations of maltreatment in Bartow for that year; 167 reports of neglect of children; 106 of physical abuse; and 10 of sexual abuse. The agency reports 106 children placed in foster care in Bartow; 76 of those were neglect, 44 substance abuse by caregiver, six physical abuse, four inability of a parent to cope, 17 inadequate housing, 28 parental incarceration, seven child behavior, 12 abandonment by parent, one sexual abuse.
According to Averett, 282 children were in foster care in Bartow County in 2013 — 82 of those exited foster care; 42 were adopted; and 36 reunified with parents or a caregiver.
“Unfortunately, between the period of July 2013 and March 2014, there has been a substantial rise in the reports of child abuse in the state of Georgia. In July of 2013, there were approximately 2,902 child protective service reports. In March 2014, there were 7,644 child protective service reports,” she said. “… [I] don’t have a degree in math, however, 4,742 increase in reports of child abuse in a seven-month time frame — it’s astonishing.
“And that’s also affected Bartow County. This year, from Jan. 1 as of [April 7], there have been 71 children placed into foster care in Bartow County alone, which, again, if you do the math, we are 36 children away from meeting or surpassing the number of children that were taken into care last year, which is concerning considering we have eight months left to go.”
The rising tide
With wave after wave of reports on children dying at the hands of parents, caregivers and those tasked with protecting them, it’s no surprise organizations at every level have been inundated with child maltreatment reports.
In January, 1-year-old Journey Ann Cowart died from alleged child abuse. Her mother, Brandy Boyd, and Boyd’s boyfriend, Austin Payne, have been charged in connection with the toddler’s death.
For Bartow CASA Director Ava Lipscomb, Cowart’s death was a wake-up call to the community.
“There are people who ‘don’t want to get involved,’ so they do not make a report of abuse or neglect when they should,” she said. “After this tragedy, I think our citizens felt they had to take action to prevent another child death.”
Law enforcement reported the same effect.
“… First of all, the education level, with everything that’s going on with TV and stuff, is really helping. People know they can report that kind of stuff. It’s not just a family issue that they need to keep amongst the family,” Euharlee Police Chief Terry Harget said. “… No. 2 is I think the community is more in tune, watching out for the kids and things of that nature. Just the way we’ve evolved in Bartow County, we get more calls about potential child situations in homes, neighbors calling. They seem to be watching out for each other.”
Euharlee police averaged 10 child abuse cases per year from 2008 to 2012. In 2013, there were 14. Six already have been filed in 2014.
Focusing on reports of specific crimes against children, Bartow County Sheriff’s Office reported 1,444 cases from 2009 to April 4 with 501 resulting in arrest. Cartersville Police Department listed 43 cases; Adairsville Police Department reported 26 cases for the same period.
Kinston Police Chief Gary Bell said he could not locate a child case for the five-year period requested.
Emerson and White police departments did not respond to requests for information.
“Child abuse is a serious concern to BCSO. We have regular training and updates to make sure that we are handling child crimes properly and prosecuting offenders properly when an arrest is made,” BCSO Sgt. Jonathan Rogers said. “Patrol deputies are trained to apply child protection laws to cases of domestic violence as well as other crimes against a child. If the situation warrants, deputies and investigators are trained to remove a child from a dangerous situation, whether it be an arrest of a parent and placing the child or an abusive situation that is dangerous to the child. If a child needs to be removed from a residence, we follow state protocol and contact the [Division of Family and Children’s Services].”
Bartow County DFCS Director Lynn Green did not respond to interview questions this week.
Breaking the cycle
With continuing economic hardships and a prevailing substance abuse problem, parents and caregivers often lash out at the most defenseless — the children.
“Bartow County has a huge substance abuse problem. Because parents have these issues, their child can suffer because the parent needs the substance more than they feel their child needs food, shelter or medical treatment,” Lipscomb said. “Sometimes it’s the parents’ friends or relatives visiting in their home who hurt their child. If a parent is not capable of protecting their child because of their substance abuse, it leaves their child as an easy target.”
Both Lipscomb and Averett refer to child abuse as a cycle — those who are abused are likely to repeat it.
“… We typically parent as we were parented. If you never received it, it’s hard to give it to someone else,” Lipscomb said. “Research suggests about one-third of all individuals who were abused or neglected as children will subject their child to maltreatment. This cycle of abuse can occur when children who either experienced maltreatment or witnessed violence between their parents or caregivers learn to use physical punishment as a means of parenting their own children. I’m not referring to a spanking; I’m referring to excessive physical and emotional punishment.”
Long term, abuse carries heavy consequences, not just for the individual but for the community.
The estimated cost involved with maltreatment and fatalities is $124 billion per year. That includes indirect costs associated with increased health care, mental illness and domestic violence among others.
“The increased number of reports of child abuse and neglect affect our whole community, not just the agencies who work with these families,” Lipscomb said.
Bartow CASA, a program of Advocates for Children, currently serves 178 children. CASA, or court-appointed special advocates, were first sworn in by Juvenile Court Judge Velma Tilley in 2001. Lipscomb said volunteers have helped 1,216 children through March 31, 2014.
“The children we work with are in foster care. CASAs talk with everyone who knows anything about the child and give a written report to the court regarding their findings. A CASA may talk with a day care provider, teacher, doctors, relatives, neighbors — anyone who can give information,” she said. “A CASA visits with the child/children at a minimum of once per month, but usually more often, especially in the beginning of the case. The CASA makes written recommendations to the court and also shares with the court what the child wants to happen in their life.”
As hard as the job is, the positives are priceless.
“One of the most rewarding parts of my job is when a child is in a permanent, safe and nurturing home. This home can be the home of their parents, relatives or an adoptive home,” Lipscomb said. “I’ve seen children leave their family of origin and their IQ increase by 30 points in their new permanent home. I’ve seen children who’ve left homes with vacant stares and nothing to say become beaming, joyous, loving little people.”
How to help
With climbing child abuse reports, agencies assisting children are in need of community support.
“Why are we here? Because we know this is a problem,” Averett said in closing Tuesday. “… I am here because I have some fundamental beliefs that I believe that you would share with me. I believe that knowledge is power. As we become more and more educated about child abuse prevention and treatment, we gain power to change what happens to the lives of these children. I believe ... every little girl needs to be a princess, every little boy needs to be a hero. They need to be in a home that they are loved, that they are safe and they are secure. Every child deserves that.
“I believe statistics are just numbers waiting to be changed. I believe terms such as ‘an increased likelihood’ and ‘more likely’ are not absolute terms, and I believe — and have to believe this every day — that I can, that you can, that we can together as a community change the lives of our children, families in Bartow County one day and one child at a time.”
While not everyone can do the work Lipscomb does, she said opportunities are available to offer assistance in other ways.
“Advocates for Children depends on the generosity of our community to help us in our battle to prevent child abuse and to work with the children who are the victims of abuse and neglect,” she said. “… One thing most everyone reading this article can do is adopt a duck, or a Quack Pack, or a VID — that’s how we keep the doors open.”
Other opportunities include:
• Become a foster parent. The county is in need of foster home; at present, Bartow County children are located around the state because of the shortage.
If you are interested in becoming a foster parent, orientation and information sessions are held the second Monday of each month at 6 p.m. at the DFCS office, 47 Brook Drive, or call Donna Eliopoulos at 770-387-3917.
• Become a CASA volunteer. To become a CASA volunteer, you must be over 21, have reliable transportation and complete 40 hours of training — 30 in the classroom and 10 hours in court observation. A complete background check — fingerprint, criminal history, and sexual abuse registry and reference checks — is conducted. For more information, contact Lipscomb at 770-386-1060 or visit www.gacasa.org and www.advochild.org.
• Become a member of the Citizens’ Review Panel. Local volunteers review foster care cases on a monthly basis and make recommendations to judges. For more information, contact Carolyn Johnson at 770-387-5039.