Advocates for children don’t need to work very hard to convince us that child abuse and neglect is a serious problem in our community.
More than two-thirds of us think it is.
About the same number see a particular kind of abuse – child sexual abuse – as a serious problem, recent surveys of Spokane and Kootenai counties show.
“Those are really astounding numbers,” said Del Ali, of Research 2000, which conducted the surveys in late March.
Most surprising, Ali said, is the intensity of concern residents in both counties seem to have about child abuse and neglect, and child sexual abuse.
In both counties, residents were more likely to say these were very serious problems. Dividing the respondents by age, by gender or based on whether they had minor children living with them didn’t seem to matter. The largest number of respondents – not a majority in any instance, but always the plurality – said these types of abuse and neglect are very serious in their communities. The smallest number of respondents said it is not a problem at all.
Part of that intensity may be a result of the media attention being directed at child abuse, and particularly child sexual abuse, said Ali, who handled the polling for a special media partnership among The Spokesman-Review, KXLY, KSPS and KHQ.
“With Chris Hansen doing ‘To Catch A Predator,’ there may be an impression that (child sexual abuse) is epidemic,” he said. As NBC airs episode after episode showing sex abusers trying to prey on young teens, that impression may have grown over the last few years, Ali added.
But sexual abuse of children is a specific problem, and poll respondents were asked first about the more general problems of child abuse and neglect. They were slightly more likely to say those are very serious problems.
Just before the news organizations began polling in Spokane and Kootenai counties, the case of a 6-month-old infant being shaken to death hit the front page and evening newscasts. But coverage of Nevaeh Alana Miller’s death, by itself, can’t explain the intensity of respondents’ concern over the seriousness of child abuse in the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene regions, Ali said.
“This is not the first type of (fatal child abuse) case these poll respondents have heard of,” he said. “It may have just reminded them of their concerns.”
In fact, the area has a long list of notorious, high-profile cases of child abuse.
A year ago, 4-year-old Summer Phelps died after what police reports have described as being bitten, beaten, shocked with a dog collar and forced to wash urine-soaked clothing in a bathtub. Three years ago, 7-year-old Tyler DeLeon died of severe dehydration. Five years ago, 2-year-old Raffy Gomez was beaten to death by his mother.
The Inland Northwest is not unique in this respect, said Ed Shelleby, a spokesman for the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.
“It takes something like this to get people riled up,” Shelleby said. “But child abuse and neglect happen every day. People might be surprised how much.”
The challenge is to get a community to stay concerned and involved after the headlines are gone, he said. Many child abuse deaths could be prevented by support for families in crisis and early intervention.
“That’s the No. 1 problem: families don’t have the support available,” Shelleby said.
Having the community recognize the seriousness of child abuse is a big step, but it is not the last step, said Mary Ann Murphy, executive director of Partners with Families and Children and the Spokane Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect council. The poll results suggest people recognize that child abuse is not “a transitory injury” with a quick recovery, but something that could have life-long consequences.
“People think it is very serious, but maybe it doesn’t affect them or their family,” Murphy said. Having moved beyond denial that child abuse and neglect happen, they need to realize this can happen anywhere and devise precautions to prevent those problems, she said.
They also need to move beyond the hysteria that surrounds high-profile cases to develop reasonable plans to protect children and help them thrive, she said.
“We need to build on the bedrock that children are very valuable.”