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Before it’s too late


Celina Pearce, 73, helped start the Northeast Community Center. 
 (Jed Conklin / The Spokesman-Review)
Celina Pearce, 73, helped start the Northeast Community Center. (Jed Conklin / The Spokesman-Review)

When state officials sought to identify the most vulnerable children in Washington, they began in Hillyard, on a dozen rough-and-tumble blocks in northeast Spokane.

Social workers respond to more child abuse and neglect referrals here than in any other area in Spokane County. U.S. Census Bureau data shows the neighborhood is among the poorest in the state. Children here are more likely to witness domestic violence, and violent crime has been a plague for the past decade.

No one knows Hillyard like tiny Celina Pearce.

From her perch in a turquoise postwar bungalow, few things have escaped the scrutiny of Pearce, a 73-year-old community activist and grandmother.

A former records specialist for the Police Department, Pearce has been involved in every facet of the community – from official police reports to statistics on abuse and neglect to the ongoing theft of roses and gardenias from her carefully tended garden.

Yet in more than 30 years, this woman at the heart of an impoverished neighborhood said she has never witnessed an act of child abuse or outright neglect with her own eyes.

“I know that it is happening, but I never see it,” Pearce said in her thick Costa Rican accent. “It is when they go home that the problems begin.”

The rise of neglect

In the 1990s, as Washington state’s economy boomed, several factors indicated improvements in the welfare of its children. Sexual abuse cases dropped in half. Physical abuse plummeted.

Yet at the same time, the number of neglect reports doubled.

Federal law defines abuse as an act – or the failure to act – that results in serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation.

But in the public arena, neglect remains vaguely defined and poorly understood, researchers say. Unlike physical abuse cases where broken bones and bruises can be damning evidence, neglect often presents more subtle signs.

“Our society simply is not willing to tolerate sexual abuse or severe physical abuse of children,” said Dee Wilson, executive director of the University of Washington’s Northwest Institute for Children and Families and a former state administrator for the Children’s Administration. “(But) society hasn’t quite made up its collective mind what to do about neglect, even in its chronic forms, which is enmeshed with poverty, substance abuse, mental health problems and intergenerational family patterns.”

While abuse is often considered an act, neglect may be considered a failure to act on behalf of a child. It can be as subtle as delayed growth and development, and as serious as death.

In Washington, chronic neglect has factored into several high-profile cases:

“Bradley M. Hanley, 6, died on Dec. 7, 2005, after his 11-year-old brother accidentally shot him in the head. The state’s Child Protective Services received a dozen referrals on the Deer Park family, including conclusive findings that Mathew T. and Barbara Hanley had neglected their children and refused drug treatment programs.

“Tyler DeLeon, 7, died on Jan. 13, 2005, from severe dehydration at a Stevens County home that was the subject of eight referrals to state workers. His adoptive mother, Carole Ann DeLeon, faces a second-degree murder charge for allegedly preventing the boy from drinking liquids.

“Raiden and Justice Robinson, ages 16 months and 6 weeks, respectively, were found dead in their Kent, Wash., apartment on Nov. 14, 2004. The children died of malnutrition and dehydration, and police officers found their mother, Marie Robinson, intoxicated and passed out in a bedroom with 300 empty cans of beer. Robinson, 39, has been charged with second-degree murder in the boys’ deaths.

“Kylla Pahl, 13 months, died in a July 2006 fire after being left alone in a Coeur d’Alene home. Born with methamphetamine in her body, Pahl died in a home littered with rotting garbage, dog feces and dirty diapers.

In each incident, state social workers received referrals about the children. On several instances, these calls were not considered serious enough to warrant investigation, and instead were logged in as “information only.”

In the Robinson case, the state received a report a year before the boys’ deaths, expressing concerns that the children were filthy, had feces and urine in their pants, and had not been fed.

Unbeknownst to the agency, in the midst of its investigation, Justice Robinson was seen by a pediatrician for “failing to thrive,” according to a fatality report published after his death.

But the state did not consider the risk significant enough to remove the children.

Bradley Hanley’s case fell into a similar pattern: allegations of drug abuse, a “dirty, disorderly” home with urine pooled on the floor, concerns about child safety. For months, the parents dodged social workers, forcing the agency to close its investigation.

Today, a new law allows Washington social workers to intervene in cases that demonstrate a “pattern of neglect,” and take legal action against parents who don’t follow treatment plans. But that wasn’t available to state workers in fall 2006.

In a meeting with a Child Protective Team, which is designed to bring a host of outside experts into the child-welfare decision-making process, the attorney general’s office warned there “was not sufficient information” to remove the Hanley boys before the shooting.

“Neglect is not always this clearly definable moment in time,” said Cheryl Wolfe, assistant attorney general in Spokane and section chief for social and health services. “You can have a series of events that have a cumulative effect. The injury is not as obvious as someone hitting a child and leaving a bruise. That makes it more difficult to prove in court.”

Even when signs exist

In a quiet neighborhood in Coeur d’Alene, a tragedy played out last summer at the small house at 1410 E. McFarland.

Joyce Hibshman, a 37-year-old foster mother, lived at the home with her husband, three foster children and two biological children.

In July, the 5-foot-8, 240-pound woman reportedly picked up her 6-year-old foster son and “threw him on the ground again and again and again.” The boy’s younger brother said Hibshman was angry that the 6-year-old had eaten her chocolate bars, according to police reports.

When her husband, Ted, arrived home, Hibshman was sitting on the edge of the shower, holding the boy, whose eyes rolled back and forth in his head. After 10 to 15 minutes, the couple called 911.

At the hospital, blood pooled inside the boy’s brain. Bruises covered his right thigh. Some bruises appeared to be days old.

“I’m scared to death because I know what this must look like,” Hibshman said, according to police reports.

The children were apparently rarely seen by neighbors, and Hibshman had been home-schooling at least some of the children, said Sgt. Christie Wood, a detective with the Coeur d’Alene Police Department. Because the family recently had moved to Coeur d’Alene from California, social workers weren’t aware of the foster home or making routine visits.

But even when there are signs of maltreatment, adults may be hesitant to involve themselves in “family issues.”

“In my experience, neighbors or relatives will call and tell you after the fact, after a child has been seriously injured,” Wood said. “I would implore people to stick their necks out a little bit for these kids. At least give us a chance to get involved. The child won’t be able to help themselves. As a society, we’re going to rely on the adults to help the children.”

State and federal reports on child maltreatment acknowledge that underreporting remains a serious concern. Even among trained professionals such as medical workers and educators, multiple studies indicate that many cases of child maltreatment are not reported.

Even in death, child abuse and neglect can be difficult to ascertain. A 1999 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that child abuse deaths are likely underreported by 60 percent.

Absent bruises, the signs can be subtle in children: Depression. Fear of an adult. Poor hygiene. Adults may blame the child for being a burden, ask caretakers to discipline the child harshly, or show little concern.

In the Hibshman case, the 6-year-old survived and has been returned to California, Wood said. In March, a judge sentenced Hibshman to supervised probation. Her attorney said she is working to regain custody of her two biological children.

“She’s not doing any jail time,” Wood said, “but she will have to live with the decisions she made on a personal level for a long time.”

Before a crisis

In the struggle to find maltreated children effectively, child welfare leaders turned to a new approach: Identify families who need help before the home environment becomes abusive.

In Hillyard, Pearce and other neighbors took notice of the plight of troubled children in the 1970s. Then they decided to take action.

For years, “latchkey kids” tramped through yards and kicked holes in fences. Low-income parents juggled jobs to pay rent. Pearce knew the problem was larger than individual families.

On an empty field just south of Pearce’s home, the neighbors persuaded city officials to launch an ambitious project, a center that would host a half-dozen service providers under a single roof.

“Some of these kids, they are not taught any better,” Pearce said. “We need to give them empowerment so they have some basis. Who are the youth looking up to?”

The Northeast Community Center, which opened in 1982, became a laboratory – and a national model – for the delivery of services to families. Under a single roof, clients can access a low-income health clinic, a day care, financial assistance programs, after-school programs, and support for single parents.

So when state officials launched a pilot program to target vulnerable children in 2004, they quickly pinpointed the Northeast Community Center and the troubled neighborhood surrounding it.

The area’s rampant poverty proved pivotal in the state’s decision. According to U.S. Census data, nearly one in four people lived below federal poverty levels.

When a subsidized housing complex opened near Shaw Middle School, local housing officials had trouble filling the apartments – not because there weren’t enough low-income applicants but because many who applied did not make enough money to afford the minimum payments, even with the federal subsidy.

On a population level, state experts knew the area was ripe for abuse and neglect cases. Indeed, more referrals come from the neighborhood’s 99207 ZIP code than any other in Spokane County.

“The need is clearly here,” said Jean Farmer, executive director of the center, which hopes to add four classrooms for neighborhood children as part of a 14,000-square-foot expansion. “We can help catch families before they reach a crisis.”

But how to identify at-risk children?

The pilot program turned the traditional child-welfare model on its head.

“We’re trying to prevent people from becoming more involved in the social services system,” said Dan Ruddell, a spokesman for Families and Communities Together. “It makes it more welcoming to the family.”

When children must be removed from home, Spokane officials have looked for immediate family to care for the children. In recent years, the percentage of Spokane County children placed with relatives has doubled.

This spring, state officials plan to take the next step: transitioning the existing program into one that partners with the neighborhood to protect children and, when possible, try to keep families intact.

“Thirty or 40 years ago, people didn’t turn to state agencies for help,” said Nicole LaBelle, regional program supervisor for Children’s Administration. “They went to their church and people in their neighborhood. We are trying to rebuild some of those types of support structures.”

But the agency’s move away from “top-down” planning and toward community partnerships will require neighbors to become more involved, LaBelle said.

“There’s a cultural shift in the way the state partners with community agencies,” LaBelle said. “When individuals have a greater knowledge of what we can and can’t do as an administration, they have a greater understanding of how they can help.”