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4/29/2012 12:44:00 PM
Child abuse continues to be all too common and there is no profile of an abuser

Lisa Trigg, Tribune-Star

An infant from Vigo County lies motionless in a hospital bed in Indianapolis, tubes and wires running from each limb, a feeding tube parting the child’s tiny lips, and white gauze wrapped around the child’s skull.

This baby has been battered by a teenage parent — a child, himself, who claims that the infant merely rolled off a chair onto the floor. Investigators are not sure exactly what caused the infant’s injuries, but they are certain it was no accident, and a criminal investigation is ongoing.

This type of injury to a child is something Detective Rick Decker sees too often as he investigates reports of child abuse and neglect for the Terre Haute Police Department. Poverty, teenage and single parents, drugs and alcohol, and a variety of other excuses are the common scapegoats for child abuse and neglect, he said. But during Child Abuse Prevention Month, Detective Decker and others who deal with these issues want to educate the public that there is no profile of an abuser.

“It could be anybody,” Decker said of a person who batters or neglects a child. “It comes from all walks of life. None of it matters — race, religion, income, whatever. It’s in all walks of life.”

Pamela Connelly agrees.

She is the director of the Vigo County office of the Indiana Department of Child Services.

“Abuse is across all socio-economic strata,” Connelly said last week, noting that she has seen cases in high-income neighborhoods as well as in low-income housing.

Decker and Connelly both want the public to know that all citizens of Indiana are mandated by law to report child abuse.

“Anyone who sees abuse should make a report,” Connelly said, whether that is by calling local police, or by calling the Indiana Child Abuse/Neglect Hotline at 1-800-800-5556.

“It truly is the village concept, where if parents aren’t taking care of children, then the rest of us need to step in,” Connelly said.

Investigating reports of child abuse in the City of Terre Haute along with Decker are Detectives Jimmy Richardson and Todd Kennedy. They see some gritty cases involving children too young to speak up about the abuse or to get away from it; they also work investigations in which the abused victims are teenagers battered by adults.

Decker has worked on child abuse cases in the department’s Juvenile Division for the past eight years.

“The reason I don’t get burned out is because I feel these kids are true victims,” Decker said.

Among the photos that document abuse cases are some close-ups of a toddler’s foot and hand. On one small, pale sole is a red burn mark in the shape of a spoon. On the child’s palm are blisters burned onto the skin by some other unknown hot object.

“That was this guy’s idea of discipline,” Decker said, shaking his head.

Another photo shows a preschool-age boy with large bruises on his hips, back and cheek, with a bandage around his skull.

Yet another photo shows an infant with her leg in a cast because of a spiral fracture of her femur. A diaper on the unconscious infant cannot cover all of the diaper rash that extends along the child’s inner thighs. She also has a tiny arm in a cast.

Decker said he cannot understand what possesses people to abuse children and cause such injuries. But he, Richardson and Kennedy aggressively pursue the criminal aspects of abuse cases to hold the abuser accountable.

“We have to prove that a crime has been committed,” Decker said.

Injuries can range from scrapes and bruises all the way to skull fractures and broken ribs, arms and legs, he said. Working with the medical staff who treat these children is essential to getting documentation that supports criminal allegations against the abuser. Many times, the children are so young that they cannot speak, or they are so traumatized that they have no ability to verbalize what has happened to them.

The reasons for the violence against children are as varied as the abusers. Besides the obvious contributing factors of drug and alcohol abuse, Decker said, the poor economy is often blamed.

“The parents have lost jobs, so there is added stress in the house,” he said. “Then, even if they gain other employment, they may be underemployed, and that is another stress factor.”

For many teen parents, the overwhelming responsibility of caring for an infant or toddler is a huge stresser.

“They have no parenting skills,” Decker said, “and maybe when they were growing up, their own parents had no parenting skills. So they don’t know what to do when the baby has been crying all night, or they get angry.”

In one recent local case involving a young mother who was using drugs, social workers had tried to remove an infant from the home because of the mother’s drug abuse and the horrid living conditions inside the dwelling. The mother fled with the infant and another small child to Illinois. She returned to Terre Haute a few days later with her children, and the next interaction authorities had with her was when the mother took her infant to a local hospital because it was not breathing.

The infant’s death was found to be bed sharing, with the drug-addled mother’s body suffocating the child as they lay together on a mattress. That young woman was arrested and later pleaded guilty to the class-B felony of neglect of a dependent resulting in serious bodily injury. She received an 11-year prison sentence.

Bed sharing is a sensitive topic, Decker said, because it falls under the category of family choices. Connelly of DCS agrees, saying there are advocates on both sides of the issue. But the fact that death can occur is reason enough for Connelly to encourage people not to share a sleeping surface with an infant.

Decker said there are investigations into child injuries and deaths that don’t meet the legal definition of abuse, but do fall under neglect.

A red flag for investigators will be “failure to thrive” because a child is being underfed or doesn’t receive appropriate medical attention.

Another recent case involved a child who was not given medication as prescribed by a doctor, and who died as a result. The mother told investigators she had given the child anti-seizure medication, but an autopsy showed the child did not have the appropriate amount of medication in the child’s blood.

In a gun-related case, a child shot himself in the leg with a handgun that he found in his father’s home. The criminal charges in that case came mainly because the father did not take the child for immediate medical attention, but instead took the boy to a family member’s home, and then made false statements to police about where the incident occurred.

Decker said he not only arrested the father for neglect, but also he arrested family members for obstruction of justice because they also gave false statements and indicated that a different gun had been used in the shooting. In firearms cases, Decker said, investigators often look into the environment where the shooting occurred, to see if firearms are stored securely or just left within reach of a child.

The same inquiry goes with swimming pool deaths. Investigators look for preventative measures around the pool, such as a locked gate or locked doors if it is a pool house.

“Some things don’t meet a criminal statute,” Decker said of some child injuries or deaths, “but we definitely make sure DCS gets involved.”

Connelly supervises a Vigo County DCS staff that includes three supervisors, four support staff and less than 30 case workers. The office could always use more caseworkers, she said, because they struggle trying to get close to the goal of each case worker only having 12 assessments and 17 ongoing cases at one time.

One of the trends Connelly said she has noticed in recent years is that reports of sexual abuse used to be at the forefront of cases handled by DCS.

“We don’t get as much of that,” Connelly said recently. “We get more abuse and neglect due to substance abuse.”

Connelly said that Vigo County has had several children who have died of head injury or who are physically impaired for life due to head injuries from abuse.

Though there is no single profile for who is most likely to abuse a child, she did say she’s noticed that males younger than age 25 tend to be the most common abuser.

She also correlates some of the abuse to poverty. The most recent demographic information released by DCS for Vigo County showed that the poverty rate was 19.7 percent in 2008, higher than the statewide rate of 12.9 percent for the same time period.

Low income and unemployment are definite stressers on families, Connelly said. However, she emphasized that many low-income families include loving parents who nurture their children.

DCS does not handle the criminal side of abuse or neglect -- that is up to law enforcement.

“What’s nice about working with DCS,” Detective Decker said, “is I can work on the criminal end of it, and know that DCS will take care of the other end of it. We have an excellent working relationship with DCS.”

DCS looks out for the well-being of the child. Sometimes that involves removal of the child from a home, and DCS has a process that must be followed when a child is removed.

A process that DCS actively promotes is the reporting of abuse or neglect through the Indiana Child Abuse/Neglect Hotline at 1-800-800-5556. When a call comes into the call center in Indianapolis, it is screened to determine if it meets the legal sufficiency to allow DCS to take action. If it does, the information is passed on to the Vigo County office, where the response effort is coordinated based on the information provided.

Connelly acknowledged that a person who calls to report child abuse may not think that any action is being taken to help the child, because confidentiality is important for the child.

“Confidentiality needs to stay in place,” Connelly said. “It’s not to protect DCS. It’s not to protect anyone but that child.”

If a child continues to live in the community where abuse or neglect took place, it can be a burden to that child to have everyone know what went on, she explained. That may be frustrating to a caller, she said, but it should not stop anyone from making a report.

“DCS is legally prohibited from communicating the status of a case to the report source,” explained DCS spokesperson Stephanie McFarland. “Under Indiana law, that information is confidential. However, even though DCS legally cannot report back the case status to the report source, it’s very possible that a family case manager — along with law enforcement — could be actively investigating the case. This is the catch 22 in our jobs, working behind the scenes to investigate the situation and protect the privacy of the child, yet we can’t share information about the progress of a case. So, assumptions and unwarranted criticisms do grow out of that type of working situation.”

If a child is in imminent danger, a person should contact law enforcement directly, McFarland said. An officer can then be sent to a scene to protect the child and investigate.

Related Stories:
• Although the problem isn't new, abuse is no longer confined to school grounds

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