Arizona’s increasing child abuse rates top nation

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When Kathy Picard was young, her family took her to a dermatologist to find out why she was losing her eyelashes and eyebrows. The dermatologist diagnosed acute encephalitis, and gave her an ointment to use.

Little did the dermatologist know.

Picard was actually losing her eyelashes and eyebrows because she was plucking them herself. From the age of seven until she was 17, Picard was sexually abused by her stepfather. Plucking her eyelashes was her subconscious cry for help.

Stories like this are becoming all too familiar in Arizona, which is just one of a few states that shows an increase over the last 10 years of children going into care as a result of child abuse or neglect, according to Chris Swenson-Smith, the division director at the Children and Family Services Division of the Pima County Juvenile Court Center.

According to data compiled from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau, for the last four years Arizona has had the greatest increase in child abuse rates from 2009 to 2012.

The large increase could be due to Arizona investigating more reports than other states, said Jennifer Bowser-Richards, communications director at Arizona Department of Child Safety. Arizona may have a broader range for what is considered to be a report that requires investigation, and other states may screen out more calls at the hotline level, Bowser-Richards said.

However, officials reported in January of this year that about 6,000 cases of child abuse went uninvestigated over the past four years.

One reason that Arizona shows an increase rather than a decrease, which is what 45 other states have shown, is that it is a high drug abuse state, said Swenson-Smith.

In Pima County, 69.2 percent of child abuse cases allege parent substance and drug abuse, and of those the most common drug is marijuana, according to Swenson-Smith. Marijuana is considered to be very cheap in Arizona because of its proximity to Mexico.

The second most common drug is methamphetamine and recently the numbers of child abuse cases alleging parental heroin abuse have tripled in four years, said Swenson-Smith.

“It was almost no cases five years ago and now it’s about 15 percent, and it continues to rise every single month,” she said.

The most common case of abuse in Arizona is when a child is born drug exposed, and when this happens a child goes right from the hospital into foster care, said Swenson-Smith.

That is where the cycle begins because many people in prison and drug-free rehabilitation centers have been victims of child abuse themselves, said Daphne Young, vice president of communications and prevention education at Childhelp, a national non-profit based in Phoenix.

“Part of our job here is to try and break that cycle of abuse,” said Young. “We’ve had people call in and say, ‘I was just about to harm my child. I’m so frustrated. I don’t know what to do,’ and we make sure they get support in their town so that their children are kept safe.”

Another reason that Arizona has had an increasing number of child abuse is because there have been drastic state budget cuts from prevention and support services for families, Swenson-Smith said.

The lack of resources and support for families involved in child abuse is what pushed Tamra Wade to go back to college and try to get her psychology and sociology credentials.

Wade, who was sexually abused from the age of ten until 18 by her grandfather, wants to develop a program to help children with childhood sexual abuse because she hasn’t seen a program here in Arizona that is sufficient.

Programs may treat some of the issues, she said, but they are not treating the whole family. One example of this is her husband, who doesn’t know how to handle her when she has a breakdown or something triggers a bad memory.

“We’ve been married over a decade and we’re just now starting to find some footing together,” Wade said. “We went looking for a resource for him and there’s nothing.”

Wade attempted to speak to her mother about the abuse but her mother said she was lying, and that’s when she realized she could no longer stay and be a part of that family.

Picard, who is now a sexual abuse prevention advocate, faced a similar situation with her own mother, who to this day still won’t communicate with her about what happened.

Kathy Picard shakes the hand of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, on June 26, 2014, after he signed into law a bill that will allow child abuse survivors more time to come forward against their perpetrators. Photo Courtesy of Kathy Picard.
Kathy Picard shakes the hand of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, on June 26, 2014, after he signed into law a bill that will allow child abuse survivors more time to come forward against their perpetrators. Photo Courtesy of Kathy Picard.

She played a huge role in changing the statute of limitations against child sexual abuse in Massachusetts. Through her advocacy work, Picard managed to extend the time frame for survivors to go forward against their perpetrators, which she thinks is vital because many survivors don’t get the courage to come forward until later in life.

Martha Denick, another victim of child sexual abuse, also said it’s not uncommon for someone to keep silent about their abuse for years.

“It gets to a point where you become stronger, but there are a lot of people that don’t ever break through because once you’ve been abused you seem to attract more abuse,” Denick said.

Some of the worst consequences of abuse occur when it is incestuous, said Emily Mackelprang, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Arizona.

“There tends to be poorer outcomes for children who are victims of incestuous abuse because if you are abused by a family member the violation of trust is even more profound,” Mackelprang said. “If a stranger perpetrates against you, there was no trust to begin with.”

It can also be worse for the victim because if the perpetrator is a family member, that usually means they have greater access to the victim, which leaves the victim feeling hopeless because they can’t escape, she said.

“Children may be less likely to tell somebody about the abuse because it’s a family member,” Mackelprang said. “They don’t want to hurt their parent’s feelings.”

One of the biggest areas of abuse is neglect, because it encapsulates so many areas, said Young.

Neglect can mean a failure to provide for a child’s physical needs, abandonment and inadequate supervision, among other things.

Some signs to look for in a child who is suffering from neglect are being underweight, constantly hungry, having poor hygiene, and being inappropriately dressed for the weather, she said.

According to Swenson-Smith, the adverse childhood experience study showed that adults who saw their mother be a victim of domestic violence, had a parent in prison, were themselves a victim of child abuse, or lost a parent to death were all more likely to suffer health issues in the future.

Those who were subjected to childhood trauma have a higher likelihood of experiencing mental heath problems, homelessness, suicide, unemployment, and substance abuse. As a result, these may lead a parent to abuse their own child, which continues the cycle.

“When we begin to look at the parents of these cases as victims themselves, we see a different way of working with the families,” Swenson-Smith said. “You have to help the parent understand that their own childhood trauma put them on this path and help them get treatment. Then you have to help the children so you can mitigate the effects on them so they won’t come back later and be the abuser.”

Reham Alawadhi is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach her at rehama@email.arizona.edu

2 comments Add yours
  1. Thank you Reham for this article! I am so glad that you are continuing the conversation about childhood sexual abuse. I learned so much with your statistics and correlation between abuse and substance use. Seems intuitive, but to read it together in your article it is more than that, it is critical to getting help to our communities.

    Thank you again!

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