If you see it, report it
It’s not something that many people realize, says Mt. Crested Butte police sergeant Nate Stepanek, but Driving Under the Influence can lead to child abuse charges.
If someone is pulled over for Driving Under the Influence and a child is in the vehicle, the adult driver will be cited for child abuse and the case referred to Gunnison County Department of Human Services. “They make the mistake of driving and putting the child in danger,” Stepanek says. “Generally, it’s not intentional—they’re not realizing the consequences of that action.”
Those types of cases are contributing to Gunnison County topping the state in terms of reports of child abuse and neglect. In 2006 (the latest numbers available) 11.8 children out of 1,000 were the victims of child abuse and neglect in Gunnison County, compared to 8.15 children out of 1,000 in Colorado. Between July 1, 2006 and June 30, 2007, the county’s Department of Human Services received 149 referrals for suspected child abuse and neglect and opened 58 new cases.
“Gunnison County does have a higher instance of substantiated cases than the state,” says county Department of Human Resources director Renee Brown. “We feel that it’s a serious issue.” But the problem is not limited to Gunnison County.
In 2005, approximately 30,000 children were reported abused or neglected and referred for investigation in Colorado according to www.childabuse.org. Out of that number, nearly 9,000 cases were substantiated or indicated as abused. Twenty-one percent suffered physical abuse, 46.6 percent neglect, 1.4 percent medical neglect, 11.5 percent sexual abuse, 5 percent psychological maltreatment and 18 percent other or unknown.
The alarming statistics—and the deaths of 41 children in Colorado in 2007 due to child abuse, 13 of whose families had been contacted by social workers—led the state to launch an investigation into the child welfare system. The report released this month found that the state and counties had not done enough to prevent the deaths. On April 17, Gov. Bill Ritter announced the creation of a 25-member “action committee” to evaluate and recommend changes to how counties and the state deal with the systems.
At the same time, various organizations are promoting April as Child Abuse Awareness Month to heighten citizens’ attentiveness to the issue, which can cross all demographics. “Child abuse does not discriminate based on income or ethnicity—it goes across the lines,” says Brown.
Brown says the community is the first line of defense to prevent child abuse and alert the department if they see something alarming. “My advice to people is that everyone should have an interest in the health and welfare of our children,” she says. “I’d encourage them to report it… The community member doesn’t have to decide if it’s child abuse or not—that’s our job.”
Brown stresses that the county Department of Human Services isn’t intent on taking children out of homes, but wants to make sure that the family is functioning. “People really need understanding that’s it’s okay to report,” she says. “We want to help families and we have trained staff who know how to go through an interview process… Children are our utmost concern.”
Brown says most child abuse, such as the impulsive act of hitting a child, is generally the result of compounded stress, which can be set off by another event or alcohol or drug abuse. Child neglect often stems from lack of information about children’s development and families being raised in social isolation.
To help combat those issues, the county offers the Nurturing Parenting Program, which provides 16 weeks of classes for new parents and the Nurse Family Partnership, where a nurse visits new families at home. “It’s really about strengthening families and keeping children in the home,” Brown says.
To address situations like those where the parent was caught drinking and driving, Gunnison County and the Seventh Judicial District have recently founded a new Family Court system. “The Family Court works with families with substance abuse problems,” Brown says. “Gunnison County is really being pretty proactive in all this.”
While the topic may be a difficult topic to discuss, Brown says, it’s extremely important for residents to be aware of child abuse issues. “I think not talking about the realities of child abuse and neglect will make it worse,” she says. “It’s not a fun topic but it’s important. We’re all big enough and strong enough to do that.”