Editor’s Note: First of a four-part series

Shocking as it may sound, child welfare officials with the Oregon Department of Human Services in Lane County received 4,687 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect in 2009. According to the agency’s records, 1,021 children were found to be victims of child abuse or neglect last year, and nearly half of these victims were 5 years old or younger.

Most people are surprised to see numbers like these in our own community. That’s why this month is important.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and the Kids’ Forensic Intervention Response & Support Team (Kids’ FIRST) — along with the Lane County Department of Children and Families, Court Appointed Special Advocates of Lane County, and the Relief Nursery — have joined together with the help of DHS Child Welfare to provide you with a picture of child abuse in our community.

Child abuse is often more than the bruises and broken bones we can see. In Oregon, “threat of harm” is by far the largest category of abuse (49 percent), followed by neglect (32 percent). According to statute, threat of harm includes all activities, conditions and circumstances that place a child in danger of physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, mental injury or other child abuse or neglect. Threat of harm is a serious concern in Lane County, and here’s an example:

A young mother gave birth to a child who was exposed to drugs during pregnancy. The mother admitted using methamphetamine during the first four months of her pregnancy. Although she is participating in some services, she refuses drug treatment and plans to continue living with her father who is recently off parole for the manufacture and delivery of methamphetamine.

The mother disclosed domestic violence by her boyfriend, who she names as the infant’s father. The boyfriend has an extensive criminal history and a warrant for his arrest for a probation violation.

Last year, Oregon DHS found that the perpetrators of child abuse and neglect in Oregon were most often family members, making up 94.3 percent of all cases. Similarly, Kids’ FIRST data collected in Lane County in 2009 indicate that 70 percent of perpetrators were family members, and the other 30 percent were individuals known to the family or to the child.

Suspects unknown to the victim accounted for only two cases in 2009, and only one in 2008.

The major problems facing families of abused and neglected children served by DHS are drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and parental involvement with law enforcement.

Children who cannot remain safely at home enter foster care. Last year, on average, DHS reported that 850 kids were in foster care in Lane County. Foster care is an essential element of our system to keep kids safe, yet we know children should not grow up there. DHS is working to make sure that children are removed from their families and placed in foster care only when they cannot safely stay at home. Now in Oregon, 58.1 percent of children coming into foster care are eventually reunified with their families.

We all have a part in protecting Lane County’s children. The good news is that with strong community involvement, we can improve their safety and protection. Lane County has excellent programs and support services for parents and families who need help dealing with domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness and other risk factors for child abuse.

But we can always do more, and that usually begins with learning about the issue. Abuse is not facts and figures. It is real children’s lives — kids with faces, with feelings, with potential. These children, our most vulnerable citizens, without a voice, depend on us to do something about the nightmare they call their life.

In the coming weeks, we will look at the causes of child abuse, what Lane County is doing well to address the problems, and what you can do to get involved. Kids’ FIRST Center and its partners in DHS, law enforcement, prosecution, the state Department of Children and Families, CASA, the Relief Nursery and many other nonprofit organizations serving child abuse victims in our community ask that you stand up for children in April and don’t sit back down. This is an issue that must stay in the forefront.

Tina Morgan, became the director of Kids’ FIRST Center (formerly known as the Child Advocacy Center) in August 2009 after serving as program manager for nearly 15 years. She has been a program developer in the field of victim advocacy since 1987 and with the Lane County District Attorney’s Office since 1991. Hers is the first of a four-part series of weekly columns addressing child abuse during Child Abuse Prevention Month.

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