April 30, 2008 in City

Abuse numbers down; citizens ready to help

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Child abuse and neglect can’t be reduced solely to a discussion of numbers, because one case can be considered one case too many.

If the discussion were just about numbers, it might be discouraging at first, because tens of thousands of cases are reported each year in Washington and Idaho, and perhaps four times that many occur but aren’t reported.

But there are numbers that can give the community hope. The number of all child abuse cases seems to be declining, particularly physical abuse.

“Things are getting better,” said Lucy Berliner, director of Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress. “Child sexual abuse is down about 50 percent in the last 10 years.”

The number of suspected cases of child abuse reported in Washington is also down, from about 84,000 in 1998 to about 75,900 last year, and the number of confirmed cases remains fairly static at about half of those reports. Numbers have fluctuated over that period, but the trend is downward.

In conducting and reporting on the Our Kids: Our Business survey, the Spokane news media found other numbers that could give the community reasons to be hopeful.

Separate polls of Spokane and Kootenai counties, conducted in late March for The Spokesman-Review, KHQ, KSPS and KXLY, suggest that people believe child abuse and child neglect are a problem in their communities. That’s probably because abuse and neglect really are a problem, just as they are in communities around the country, said Del Ali of Research 2000, who oversaw the poll.

“The good news is, people recognize it’s a problem and they’re interested in doing something about it,” Ali said.

That includes being willing to spend money on programs to reduce abuse and neglect, he said. His national polling firm has conducted surveys in Washington and Idaho for The Spokesman-Review for more than a decade, and Ali considers residents of Spokane and Kootenai counties to be more cautious than many others on questions of raising taxes or expanding government.

The poll doesn’t suggest local taxpayers are willing to write a blank check, he said. Any request for more taxes would have to be accompanied by a clear description of how the money would be spent and how that would improve the problems of abuse and neglect, he said.

“They’re not going to throw money into a black hole,” he said. “If (a proposal) is too ambiguous, it’s dead.”

But a solid majority of those surveyed think the community should spend more to help reduce child abuse and neglect, and a solid majority of those said they’d be willing to pay more in taxes to support those programs. The pollster called it “a real silver lining in a dark issue.”

Using the poll results as a springboard for conversation, The Spokesman-Review discussed other aspects of child abuse and neglect with experts in the field and found more silver linings.

Berliner and others were impressed that the seriousness of child abuse and neglect were so well recognized in Spokane and Kootenai counties. Some of that recognition is likely a result of high-profile horrific deaths of children. Last year, Spokane had the death of 4-year-old Summer Phelps; this year it had 7-month-old Nevaeh Miller.

Those cases tend to skew the public’s perception of the problem. The cases that get the most attention – sexual abuse and physical abuse – are actually the least common.

Sexual abuse cases are only about 5 percent of the child abuse cases handled by the state of Washington, said Dee Wilson, director of the Northwest Institute for Children and Families. They once topped 15 percent.

That could be from a combination of stronger penalties, a change in the culture that does not ignore sexual abuse and a system that is “more welcoming” for people reporting the abuse, Berliner said. For whatever reason, those numbers are down.

About 20 percent of the reports involve other forms of physical abuse, but that, too, is a decline, Berliner added.

Cases of neglect have not declined, she said, but that may be partly a result of broadening the definitions of what constitutes neglect.

With the emphasis that has been placed on preventing child abuse and neglect over the last 25 or more years, it’s not surprising that a community would have some recognition that it has a problem, said Joan Sharp, executive director of the Washington Council for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. Because of extensive media coverage last April and this April, the recognition in Spokane and Kootenai counties may be “off the charts.”

But that recognition could gradually decline as the months pass, she added, and recognition, by itself, isn’t enough.

“People can get stuck on awareness, and never get to action,” Sharp said.

The fact that the Our Kids: Our Business survey showed people in the two counties are willing to do more and pay more to prevent child abuse was a key finding, Sharp said, and the newspaper offered them a chance to sign a pledge to do something to help.

“It would be easy to say let’s put more money into the kinds of prevention programs we know to be effective,” she said. She’d start with home visitation programs that offer help in the home to new parents in the first few years of a child’s life, which are effective and can save money in the long run.

But preventing child abuse isn’t just about another government program, she said. It’s about people looking at what they do, what happens in their family, and what happens in their neighborhood that can be harmful to children, and taking steps to prevent those things.

For Mary Ann Murphy, of the Spokane Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect Council, the most heartening results from the poll was the belief by more than two-thirds of those surveyed in each county that child abuse can be prevented.

“The first step is thinking it’s possible,” Murphy said.

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