More than 131,000 North Carolina children investigated for neglect, abuse in 1-year period.

By Dan Hesse
This story was originally published by Carolina Public Press, an online news organization covering Western NC.

As a Marion man faces charges connected to the death of a 20-month-old girl stemming from alleged child abuse, according to a grand jury indictment, the incident highlights problems with child abuse across Western North Carolina.

But determining just how many children are subject to abuse can be difficult, and experts say the numbers may not reflect real life for the region’s youngest residents, as abuse can be under-reported and every investigation is not substantiated.

Data analyzed by the University of North Carolina’s Jordan Institute for Families, show that officials investigated reports of neglect or child abuse for 131,264 North Carolina children during the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the latest year data was available.

According to the institute, both of those numbers increased from the previous year statistics were available by 4,216 across the state. That’s a 3.3 percent increase for the state.

The numbers may not tell the whole story, some experts said.

“The Child Health Report Card from the North Carolina Institute Of Medicine has for years given the state D’s and F’s in child maltreatment, stating if it were a communicable disease, child abuse and neglect would be an epidemic in North Carolina,” Bill McGuire, executive director of Asheville-based Child Abuse Prevention Services said in an email.

Experts and advocates added that, if, as suggested, the state’s children are facing a child abuse “epidemic,” education, prevention and prosecution can help communities and families recognize the signs of abuse and, potentially, save the lives of children in Western North Carolina.

Thriving in secrecy, multiple costs

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services defines neglect as a failure of a child’s guardian to provide basic necessities such as food, shelter and health provisions and says abuse can be emotional, physical or sexual in nature.

A report of child abuse is not an indictment and many times is unsubstantiated, as the data from the Jordan Institute shows that services are often not recommended after an investigation.

A single child can have multiple reports and a single report can also involve multiple children. Reports can refer to anything from neglect to a spectrum of abuse.

According to Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, a statewide organization aimed at combating child abuse, the real numbers involving child abuse can’t truly be known as it thrives in secrecy and is an under-reported crime.

McGuire said that he believes child abuse statistics could be significantly higher than reported.

“The literature suggests that child abuse is grossly unreported and under-reported, particularly child sexual abuse,” he said. “And, that reports are the ‘tip of the iceberg’ with the actual number being three to five times higher – perhaps one in every other child.”

Whatever the numbers are, studies suggest it’s a crime that is costing the North Carolina and the nation, not to mention the children themselves.

Research released earlier this year by Prevent Child Abuse America states the financial cost of child abuse is more than $80 billion annually, with North Carolina’s share coming in around $2.1 billion annually.

The calculated costs include factors such as short- and long-term physical and mental healthcare, law enforcement and court costs, emergency housing and even projected lost worker productivity of those who have been abused.

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention reports the aggregate of one year’s worth of nationally confirmed child abuse cases will cost roughly $124 billion.

Combating an epidemic

Rosie Ryan, the president of Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, said education, support and availability of resources for families is the best way to prevent abuse.

“We’ve reached a point where what research tells us about child abuse prevention and the importance of strengthening families is not equally matched by public policy or investments in children and families,” Ryan said via email. “We must broaden our investments in programs and strategies proven to effectively strengthen families if we want our children to thrive and grow up to become successful, contributing members of their communities.”

“Child abuse is preventable, and that is why it is so important to increase awareness, encourage reporting, and to have prevention, education and counseling programs like (our program),” McGuire said.

Selena Cannon Moretz, director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of the Blue Ridge, located in Watauga County, believes collaborating with families, the government and community agencies and earnestly listening to kids will help prevent abuse and neglect.

“You have to empower the children to protect themselves,” she said. “I think educating our children is the greatest gift we can give them. There are programs to help caregivers identify the telltale signs of abuse as well as provide a road map for action to quickly help the children, but funding these types of programs is not cheap.”

Ryan agreed, stating that while it can be challenging to find the fiscal resources, awareness initiatives are having a positive impact.

“Organizations are implementing programs and strategies proven through extensive research to prevent child abuse and neglect before it occurs,” Ryan said. “These evidence-based strategies, sponsored by public and private organizations, strengthen families by offering parents knowledge, skills, support and access to resources.”

While prevention is clearly the desirable option, abuse and neglect still happen, and Jim Moore said prosecution can be difficult. Moore is the chief assistant district attorney for Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Macon, Swain, Haywood and Jackson counties.

He said backed-up court calendars, delayed evidence-testing results from the State Bureau of Investigation and other factors can delay getting a case to trial.

“Child victims, especially the younger ones, will quite frequently not be able to express what has occurred, or not be able to express it in sufficient details to be able to describe who the perpetrator may have been or what and where the crime happened,” Moore said in an email. “Even when they can provide sufficient information to tell us who, where, and when, they will sometimes feel like they are powerless against the adult who has harmed and threatened them, and are therefore reluctant to tell what they do know.”

The general public’s awareness of and vigilance about preventing abuse might be the best weapon against child neglect and abuse, advocates said.

“We would love to work ourselves out of existence, but unfortunately that is not going to happen,” McGuire said. “So, we will keep educating children and families to reduce and prevent abuse, and keep offering crisis intervention and counseling for those who need it.”

Moore says it’s of utmost importance people are able to recognize the signs of neglect and abuse as soon as possible, as it bolsters the chance of prosecution.

“Early reporting of the abuse allows for physical evidence to be collected connecting the defendant with the crime,” he said. “The very first case that I got involved in when I went to work for the DA’s office in 1991 was a child sexual abuse case. These types of cases were then, and continue to be today, cases that the District Attorney’s office takes very seriously. Children are our future and they deserve our protection.”

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...