It was reported in January that an Orlando, Fla., server likely saved an 11-year-old boy’s life by getting involved. As his family dined, she noticed no food was ordered for the boy and that he had bruises and a large scratch on his forehead. She came back with a note only he could see, “Are you OK?” He nodded yes.

Unconvinced, she came back with another sign. “Do you need help?” He again nodded yes. 

A 911 call and police investigation thereafter likely saved his life. His parents are now charged with criminal child abuse and neglect.      

There has been a dramatic increase in cases that involve allegations of abuse and neglect of children in Minnesota in the past few years. In November 2019, the 2018 Minnesota Child Maltreatment Report was published. State officials indicate that in 2018, Minnesota child protection agencies received 86,060 reports of child maltreatment, a 2.3% increase from 2017. Once a report of maltreatment has been received, local agency staff reviews the information and determines if allegation(s) meet the statutory threshold for child maltreatment (“screen in”).  There were 38,872 alleged victims involved in 30,655 completed assessments or investigations following screened child maltreatment reports. The formal description of these cases is Child in Need of Protection or Services or shortened to CHIPS cases. These cases will involve not only the children and parents but also social workers, attorneys and a guardian ad litem. 

Focus on prevention

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. The mission of this national emphasis is to encourage all individuals and appropriate organizations to participate in the lives of families and children which might increase prevention of abuse and neglect. 

The theory behind this effort is that if we increase the skills, knowledge, and resources for all families to care for their children, we can increase emotional and physical well-being of children. This decreases the likelihood that those same children may be abused or neglected.

How does Minnesota define child abuse? 

There exists a specific definition in state statute which covers a range of abuse types. The most direct abuse is physical or sexual harm to a child. There are also a number of situations such as failing to provide adequate shelter, food, medical treatment, which are examples of neglect. Truancy from school can also result in a CHIPS case in court. 

What are the common risk factors which increase the chance children may be abused or neglected? Firsthand data suggests that immaturity of parents, family stress, substance abuse (opioids most recently), and intergenerational patterns of abuse, are common risk factors. These factors, when combined with the natural challenges with raising children, increase the risk of abuse.

Stark numbers

How many children are abused annually? The 2019 National Children’s Alliance Report indicates that annually:

  • An estimated 1,770 children die from abuse and neglect in the United States.

  • An estimated 678,000 children (unique incidents) were victims of abuse and neglect in 20181, the most recent year for which there is national data. That’s about 1% of kids in a given year. However, this data may be incomplete, and the actual number of children abused is likely underreported. 

  • More than 3.5 million children received an investigation or alternative response from child protective services agencies. An estimated 1.9 million children received prevention services. 

  • The youngest children were most vulnerable to maltreatment. Children in the first year of their life had the highest rate of victimization of 2.7% of all children that age. 

  • Neglect is the most common form of abuse. Three-out-of-five (nearly 61%) of victims were neglected only, more than 10% were physically abused only, and 7% were sexually abused only. Yet the statistics indicate a more complex problem where children experience multiple forms of abuse. In 2018, more than 15% of kids were polyvictimized (suffered two or more forms of abuse).

  • About four out of five abusers are the victims’ parents. A parent of the child victim was the perpetrator in 78% of substantiated cases of child maltreatment. 

What can you do in our community to assist with the prevention of child abuse? There exist a number of resources available to you to become educated and to be proactive both locally and nationally. A national list of resources is at https://www.childwelfare.gov. An example of a Minnesota organization dedicated to the prevention of child abuse is FamilyWise Services and their website is familywiseservices.org which also can provide resources.  

You can also visit with your local child protection social workers in the county human services building and they can direct you to many resources. Many schools, churches, and other organizations are interested in offering services to address child abuse and neglect.  

If you are a grandparent or relative, get involved – advocate for children! Too often extended family members allow the maltreatment to go unreported despite obvious signs that something is wrong in the child’s household. The role of the court is to reunify children with their parents, if at all possible, through treatment and human services agency programs.

Steve Halsey, Wright County District Court, has chambers in Buffalo, Minn. This article includes contributions from Judge Randall Slieter and republished with his permission.

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