By Gari Voss
Since the 1980s, various programs have been designed to help children understand situations when they do not feel comfortable, and what to do in response to those feelings. Some children have felt empowered to seek assistance while more adults have received training in recognizing
signs of child abuse, but the data indicates that cases of child abuse and neglect have been rising. That is, until 2020. So, what can be done to ensure that children do not lose their childhood?
The Associated Press did an analysis of state data nationwide which indicated that in the 36 of 50 states participating, reports of child abuse and neglect had been increasing until 2020. Michigan alone reported that 119,717 referrals were made by mandated reporters and 51,671 cases made by non-mandated reporters. Of those cases, 67,366 from the mandated reporters and 28,701 from non-mandated reporters were assigned for investigation.
A study by the Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) found that from 2010 to 2018, “the number of children in families investigated for abuse or neglect increased in 81 of 83 counties and increased by 71.8% statewide. The number of confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect increased by 33.7% statewide and 64 counties in the state saw an increase. In addition, 51 counties saw an increase in children in out-of-home care which equated to an increase of 3.7% statewide.”
One reason for the increase may be contributed to the fact that children and mandated reporting adults have been more proactive at reporting situations where children seem to be in danger. Therefore, suspected abuse is being reported and can be investigated.
What is worrisome is the 2020 drop in cases. Children staying at home 24/7 do not come in contact with adults who recognize changes in emotions or shared conversations. Children do not spend time in safe spaces where they trust adults. The social isolation along with increased financial hardship and stress have reduced reporting.
Consequently, states have reported that more severe, substantiated cases have been uncovered with serious physical and emotional ramifications to children and other family members. By the time some cases are reported, it is because of hospitalization or even death.
At one time, child abuse and neglect was linked to lower socio-economic households, but that is no longer the case. Overall, instances of abuse are related to biological relatives and family friends.
To break the cycle of abuse and neglect, organizations such as Safe Harbor in Allegan and Barry Counties provide the lifeline that children and their families need. Executive Director Lori Antkoviak explained, “The Safe Harbor Safe Kids Body Safety program provides age appropriate information to protect children from preschool through middle school from abuse. This includes information about safe and unsafe touches, how to identify a trusted adult to ‘talk’ about unsafe touches, bullying prevention, and online safety.”
Antkoviak cited, “1 in 10 children will be sexually assaulted by the time they reach the age of 18. According to the FBI, 1 in 5 children who touch a digital device will be sexually solicited online. During 2020, almost 200 Allegan County children shared their story of sexual or severe physical abuse through a forensic interview at Safe Harbor.”
“According to Kids Count Data for 2020, 512 children in Allegan County were confirmed through investigations as child abuse and neglect victims. Children need to know that they have a right to not be sexually abused and to learn that there are adults who can help them.” The Safe Harbor Safe Kids program gives younger children a body safety coloring book with body safety rules and a bookmark to identify safe adults. Older children are given a plastic bracelet with a QR code to the Safe Harbor Safe Kids webpage reminding them of body safety and the bookmark to identify safe adults.
The interactive classroom presentations are developed for each age level. The younger children are introduced to fun, swimsuit-clad, body safety bears, coloring books, and activities to reinforce body safety.
For older children, classroom activities and animated Protect
Yourself Rules videos give children age-appropriate real-life examples of how to respond to
body safety violations.
Children need to know these rules and realize there are caring adults to support them.
The Safe Harbor Safe Kids programs are just the beginning of what Safe Harbor, Allegan, offers children of abuse and neglect. Once children understand that they have trustworthy adults with whom they can share uncomfortable situations, they often self-report. On the other hand, adults, whether mandated reporters or non-mandated reporters, are
also able to file concerns with either Child Protective Services (CPS) or with the local, county
or state police.
At this point, Safe Harbor can be the lifeline or conduit in the process. Because of their unique staff, children can come to the office and interact with a variety of staff members. The first person would be a trained interviewer.
The interviewer has the ability to speak with the child 1-on-1 to prevent multiple interviews by a law enforcement or CPS investigators, these interviews can be videoed. The investigative interviews are extremely important to discern the facts related to the situation in question.
In addition to trained interviewers, Safe Harbor can perform medical screenings and examinations if necessary. Again, the child is in a safe environment that is filled with friendly toys, books and murals. This prevents children from going through examinations in an unfamiliar doctor’s office or hospital.
After interviews and other tasks are completed, a team reviews the facts and works together to determine the next steps. This can complete the investigation process for CPS or the legal authorities, set up counseling sessions with the child, or start legal proceedings as deemed necessary.
The goals is to make sure that any child who feels threatened because of abuse or neglect has
a safe place to turn. Safe Harbor can provide a lifeline that can allow a child to experience
childhood even after a traumatic experience. Safe Harbor, Allegan is looking to create a new facility for their work.
Visit https://safeharborcac.org/ to learn more and/or RSVP for Sail Away with Us! Safe Harbor’s 13th Annual Lifeline Gala, April 16, 2021, 6pm, Bay Pointe Inn in Plainwell.