April is National Child Abuse & Neglect Awareness Month. As an agency that has existed for over 42 years providing nurturing care and support to children and families, we are committed to education, advocacy, and awareness around this important issue facing our state.
We hope you will join us in driving home this important message.
A Growing Need for Awareness and Prevention
– Reports and incidents of child abuse and neglect are growing nationally, including in Montana.
- According to the Protect Montana Kids Commission Report, submitted to the Governor in May of 2016, there were 35,812 calls made to the state’s Child Abuse Hotline in 2015.
- Of those calls to the hotline in 2015, 17,754 rose to the level of potential abuse or neglect, with nearly 9,000 investigations being completed.
- In 2013 there were 2,232 children living in out-of-home care in Montana. By 2015 that number grew to 3,179, and by the end of 2018, the number had grown to over nearly 4,000 children, a 77% increase in five years!!!
- Between 2008 and 2018 Montana saw a 165% increase in the number of children in out-of-home care.
- In addition, the state’s court system is being overrun by child abuse and neglect cases. In 2015 there were 2,321 District Court cases filed, up 125% over 2010 numbers. And this trend has continued through 2018 as more and more children are entering the out-of-home care system in MT.
There are several contributing factors that help explain the dramatic increase in children being removed from their homes due to unsafe situations. One of the leading factors is the massive increase in methamphetamine, opiate, and heroin use nationally. Parents using these drugs are much more likely to commit criminal offenses, be unable to properly care for their children, neglect their children, and potentially abuse their children, creating unsafe environments leading to out-of-home placements. A dramatic increase in the use of these drugs has been seen across the country, including Montana.
Other factors include poverty and homelessness, unemployment, food insecurities, mental illness, alcohol abuse, and both physical and sexual abuse. The overwhelming majority (roughly 95% nationally) of out-of-home cases are due to neglect situations, with only 3-5% of cases involving physical or sexual abuse. Another explanation for the increase in placements is an increase in awareness and reporting. Many states and organizations have done a much better job creating awareness of this issue and of sharing how reports can be made.
How to Recognize Child Abuse and Neglect
Any concerned person can report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. It is not an accusation; rather it is a request for an investigation and assessment to determine if help is needed. If you suspect abuse or neglect is or has occurred you can call the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-866-820-5437 or call 911. Child Protective Services staff will use federal and state established criteria to determine if an investigation is warranted and if abuse or neglect is or has occurred.
There are many signs that could indicate abuse or neglect is or has occurred. Any one or two signs do not necessarily mean abuse is or has occurred, but often multiple signs may present themselves all at once or over a period of days or even weeks and months. It is important to pay attention to both physical signs and behaviors that may seem unusual or concerning. For more information on the signs of abuse and neglect you can go to www.childwelfare.gov.
Some of the more common signs to look for:
- Child shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance, or arrives for activities very early or stays very late.
- Child has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents’ attention, frequently lacks adult supervision, or is consistently dirty or hungry.
- Child has unexplained injuries, such as burns, bites, or bruises. Or, may have difficulty walking, sitting, or playing.
- You notice a child is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen, is reluctant to be around a particular person, or does not want to go home.
- Child demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated, or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior.
- Child attaches very quickly to strangers or new adults in their environment, and may demonstrate inappropriate physical boundaries such as wanting to hold hands, hug, or sit on a strangers lap.
Again, any one or two signs may not mean abuse or neglect is or has occurred. Often, and understandably, people are reluctant to make a report out of fear of being wrong. However, we need to ask ourselves…what if I am right, and I didn’t say something? Most times a concerned adult willing to speak up is all it takes for a child to get help. Staff at the Child Abuse Hotline can help answer any questions you may have.
Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect
Physical: Child abuse and neglect can result in a number of physical health issues such as broken bones, hemorrhages, brain damage and impaired development. Many of these physical health issues can linger well into adulthood and even for a lifetime.
Psychological: The psychological effects of abuse and neglect, such as, isolation, fear, and an inability to trust can translate into lifelong consequences – including low self-esteem, depression, and relationship difficulties.
Behavioral: Research shows us that more than 50% of children who experience abuse and neglect demonstrate severe behavior problems such as, substance abuse, truancy, high dropout rates, teen pregnancy, and delinquency. In fact, children who are victims of abuse and neglect are nine times more likely to become involved in criminal activities, and seven times more likely to abuse their own children someday.
Societal: While child abuse and neglect usually occur within the family, the impact does not end there. Society as a whole pays a price for child abuse and neglect, in terms of both direct and indirect costs.
- Direct costs: In 2012 Montana spent nearly $67 million dollars placing children in out-of-home care services. That number does not include costs associated with law enforcement time, attorney costs, court costs related to prosecution, or any expenses related to incarceration, or the costs associated with treatment for children or parents.*The number of children in placement has increased 165% since 2009.
- Indirect costs: Indirect costs include increased dropout rates, resulting in fewer and less skilled people prepared for the work force, higher numbers of people on assistance, higher rates of homelessness, poverty, and a continuation of the cycle of abuse and neglect. Other costs include a need for more police, more social workers to investigate and handle increased caseloads, more county attorneys to handle increasing court cases, and an increase in providers like Watson’s and many others to provide services to children in care.
What You Can Do
Know the signs and symptoms of abuse and neglect (go to Prevent Child Abuse America’s website Recognizing Child Abuse to learn more).
Report it if you suspect it!
You can call (1-866-820-5437 or call 911) if you suspect child abuse or neglect is happening. You can remain anonymous.
Don’t be afraid to get involved!
You are not turning someone in, you are simply alerting someone that there may be a concern. State social workers must follow strict guidelines regarding child abuse and neglect and will determine if it rises to that level.
Be an advocate for children and families in need!
Through 50+ years of focused research we know the stressors within families that can lead to child abuse and neglect. Those stressors include, but are not limited to: unstable housing, unemployment, food insecurity, lack of transportation, mental health issues, chemical dependency issues, previous history of child abuse in parent(s), domestic violence, social isolation and lack of social support systems, teen pregnancy, and being a single parent.
These stressors do not mean that abuse or neglect will occur in a family. But, the more of them that are present, the more likely it is that child abuse and/or neglect will occur.
If you know of a family dealing one or more of the above stressors, offer to help, suggest community resources that may help, or if you’re concerned about a child’s safety, make a report. Often, it only takes one concerned person to reach out to make a difference.
Together, we can build a stronger community, one family at a time.