Children's Center responds to sharp spike in child abuse

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

For the second consecutive year, the number of child abuse cases handled through the Children's Center in Monett increased to record levels. The 2012 total reflected the largest increase in a 12-month period since service began.

Increases were seen throughout the 12-county area served by Children's Center of the Ozarks, the umbrella organization for the Monett office. A total of 1,041 children were served by the office, an increase of 37 from 2011.

Much of that increase came at the Monett office. A total of 232 children were served locally, up 53 from 2011.

"I really don't have any idea why the numbers are going up," said Rebecca Shackelford, child advocate at the Monett office.

"The percentages are staying the same," Shackelford explained. "The only changes are we're seeing more physical abuse cases and we've interviewed more witnesses."

The Children's Center is organized on the national child advocacy center model, providing a child-friendly setting for the investigation and treatment of child abuse.

Staff at the Monett office conducted 214 interviews and 89 medical exams in 2012. The center worked on 1,321 cases during the year.

Staff worked 41 referrals from the Monett Police Department, up from 21 in 2011. The Barry County Sheriff's Department and other county agencies referred 71 cases, up from 53 in 2011. The Lawrence County Sheriff's Department and other county agencies referred 52 cases, up from 39. Aurora police referred 34 cases, up from 22 in 2011.

The victims numbered 166 females (72 percent), and 66 males.

Sexual abuse cases rose to 177, up 23 from the previous year. Physical abuse totaled 45 cases, up 20.

A shift in the ethnicity of victims reflected abuse has become more of a mainstream occurrence. White victims made up 95 percent of the cases, up almost 40 cases. Cases among other ethnicities dropped by 5 percent.

The ages of the victims showed almost equal spikes among the youngest groups. Victims age 13 and up remained almost unchanged, up one to 53 for 2012. More than three-quarters of the children served fell into two nearly even categories: age 7 to 12 and under age 7, with almost 90 cases in each category.

Out of 240 cases, parents made up about 30 percent of the offenders. Almost 20 cases involved unknown abusers, a significant increase over the previous year.

The age of known offenders also shifted in the past year. The number of younger offenders dropped from 34 cases to 20 cases. The number of known offenders age 18 and older jumped from 155 to 199.

"I think there's more awareness of what we do," said Cassie Meier, forensic interviewer who is now a regular part-time member of the staff at the Children's Center in Monett. "People know we're here, they talk about it and they're not afraid to report abuse anymore."

The Children's Center offered a training session for professionals dealing with abuse cases in 2012. Prosecutors, a therapist and representatives of the Juvenile Office were among the presenters.

"We're doing more medical exams," Meier said. "Victims may need a nurse to tell them they are okay and not damaged. We're encouraging investigators to bring in other children as witnesses. We can interview kids who may have witnessed something traumatic. Some are able to convey what they saw better than others."

"Typically, a case is one person's word against another," Shackelford said. "There's rarely a witness. When there is, it makes the case stronger."

Several donations, including computers made available by Jack Henry and Associates, have aided daily activities at the center. The Monett High School FBLA Chapter and the Purdy High School FCCLA Chapter continue to provide the center with stuffed animals, toys, coloring books crayons and personal hygiene products.

"We still depend a lot on community support," Shackelford said. "Our benefit golf tournament was the most successful we've ever had. We welcome donations at any time."

Teams from the Children's Center will make more appearances in the community in 2013. The staff has several different programs available. Awareness remains one of the center's strongest assets.

"You only have to have a reasonable suspicion to call the hotline," Meier said. "You don't need to investigate on your own. I think a lot of the time people don't report abuse 'til they know for sure. By then a lot has happened."

"Abuse can happen to anyone, in any economic status," Shackelford added. "I don't think anyone is exempt."

For more information on the Children's Center and its activities, contact Shackelford at 417-354-8657.

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