Child abuse cases within Arizona raise major concerns for school officials, advocacy centers and pubic safety departments, as advocates recognize a strong need for prevention programs and community awareness to help resolve the issue.
“There is more that can be done that is being overlooked. It’s a matter of education and awareness,” said Kathy McLaughlin, executive director for the Arizona Child & Family Advocacy Network. “What is the right thing to do? How do we solve this problem?”
Each year, more than 3 million reports of child abuse are made within the U.S., according to Child Help, a national organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of child abuse. The U.S. has one of the highest rates of child abuse cases, and as a result, child deaths, among industrialized nations. On average, about four to seven children die each day as a result of child abuse and neglect.
In Arizona alone, between 2010 and 2014, the number of child victims of abuse and neglect under the age of 17 more than doubled, according to the 2014 Child Maltreatment Report. This increase is alarming as Arizona continues to be one of the top states for child maltreatment overall.
The number of child abuse victims is significantly higher for children ages 1 to 7, according to the report. With the breakdown of Arizona victims by age, 20.83 percent of children were less than 1-year-old. Of the total number of child victims, 50.57 percent were boys and 49.25 percent were girls.
As of 2015, Arizona ranks 46th in the nation when it comes to child well-being, according to McLaughlin. Arizona, she said, is one of the worst states for children to live, as poverty rates are high and education is low, resulting in a high number of school dropout rates. Overall, Arizona has more children than most states who are uninsured, while state legislatures and school boards continue to cut program funding for youth.
A major concern is that many child abuse cases go undocumented because officials are not aware of the situation. This, McLaughlin said, is why people need to know their role in the community — able to recognize the indicators of a child abuse situation, whom to report it to and how to report it.
It starts with everyday people stepping up to act, McLaughlin said. If the public does not identify and report cases, then professionals do not know the situation at hand. “Everything starts with the community itself. If the community does not recognize the signs of child abuse, they won’t make a report,” she said.
By Arizona statute, people must report to officials if they suspect a minor has been a victim to physical injury, abuse, child abuse or neglect, according to the Arizona Legislature. In reality, more cases go unreported. Under former Gov. Jan Brewer’s administration, more than 6,000 reports of child abuse and neglect went uninvestigated, according to Tamecia Kariuki, a case management worker for the Arizona Department of Child Safety and the Child Welfare Education Project. “We are suppose to investigate every report that comes in,” Kariuki said.
“What we can and can’t count and what we do and don’t count is really quite extraordinary,” said Dr. Janet Rosenzweig, vice president of research and programs for Prevent Child Abuse America.
Child abuse can happen anywhere and everywhere. There are simply some families who have the means to do something about it. According to McLaughlin, low-income families, those dealing with substance abuse and immigrant families are in high demand for prevention programs. In some situations, these families can be more at risk because they are unable to help themselves through a traumatic experience, whether that be because of legal matters, inability to access resources or lack of support.
Children who have a family member exposed to domestic violence, especially if that child has witnessed that violence, are 50 percent more likely to experience domestic violence, McLaughlin said. “Consequences of childhood abuse can last a lifetime. That doesn’t mean they have to last a lifetime,” she said.
States should be providing more support to advocacy centers, according to McLaughlin. They are the ones who are trained to deal with child abuse cases and have the resources to help get children the care they need.
There are 18 advocacy centers in Arizona. These centers provide awareness, training for professionals in how to deal with instances of child abuse and recourses on where victims can go for support, McLaughlin said. In many cases, at these centers, DCS, law enforcement, advocates and therapists are all co-located under the same roof. They report to families and figure out what they need in order to provide care for the victim.
The key is to make every center successful and sustainable, officials say. There is a need for multidisciplinary teams, which can identify training needs, bring in training and share information among members. Although there are advocacy centers available to victims and their families, a program is needed to reach out to rural Arizona, which does not currently have advocacy centers or programs, according to McLaughlin.
“Everything is based on relationship and trust,” said McLaughlin, adding that if advocacies and personnel communicate with each other, the outcome for children and their families can be greatly improved.
Providing training to personnel at schools is a key preventative measure when it comes to lowering the number of child abuse cases, according to Sgt. Sonia Pesqueira, supervisor for the homicide and cold case unit for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. Programs involving an educational presentation, information on the legalities of child abuse and how to report it, will give proper training to adults. “Advocacy centers need to reach out to schools, and schools need to reach out to advocacy centers,” Pesqueira said.
The number of child abuse cases reported to the State Advocacy Center drops significantly during the summer because victims do not have school faculty or community members keeping a close eye on them, according to McLaughlin. This shows how influential school personnel can be in looking out for children and recognizing misconduct.
Adult responsibility should be promoted, Rosenzweig said. There is a strong need for supportive parents and communities, and educational and emotional resources. Something the nation should strive for as a whole is “strong families, strong adults and strong communities,” Rosenzweig added.
Long-term effects of child abuse can vary. According to the 2013 International Journal of Public Health, 18 to 20 percent of women and 8 percent of men worldwide have suffered the consequences of child sexual abuse. Among children under the age of 18, nine girls and three boys out of 100 are victims of forced intercourse.
Pesqueira has come across adults now that she saw as children of abuse in the 1980s and early ’90s. The abuse these adults endured as children “complicated and furthered illness,” Pesqueira said. Health problems the victims face now include depression, anxiety and physical ailments, such as Crohn’s disease. “I’ve never really seen a success story,” she said.
Children may be unable to recognize what is and isn’t sexual abuse or misconduct, according to The Lifetime Prevalence of Child Sexual Abuse and Sexual Assault Assessed in Late Adolescence, from the 2014 Journal of Adolescent Health. This reflects “terminological ambiguity,” that ends up confusing both the victim and those who try to help the victim overcome the traumatic experience(s) they faced.
Incidents of child abuse can have a big impact on the gender identity of a victim. Male victims are more likely to not report abuse and neglect because they are afraid to admit they were a victim. They often suffer from identity confusion, self-blame and shame, which can then lead to further misunderstanding and issues in dealing with who they are, according to Suicide attempts among men with histories of child sexual abuse: examining abuse severity, mental health, and masculine norms, from the 2013 journal of Child Abuse & Neglect.
Abused children are often faced with multiple physical and psychological issues throughout the rest of their childhood and into adulthood. According to Pesqueira, typical findings include: poor body image, low self-esteem, anorexia or obesity, self-mutilation, promiscuity (mostly in females) and sexual confusion. Most of these children have trouble with intimate relationships later in life, because they are confused due to their sexual experiences with what happened in the past. This then results in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Perpetrators knowingly target young victims because they can groom the child to their liking, according to Pesqueira. “A lot of children are targeted because they don’t speak out,” said Pesqueira. At this vulnerable age, children are then seen as naive and can be manipulated into situations they thought were good.
In many cases, the victim knows their perpetrator, and therefore the victim is even less likely to report the abuse. Pesqueira recalled a situation in which the daughter of a Tucson Police Department officer was sexually abused as a teen. The teen’s perpetrator was her father’s brother, so she chose to not speak up about the abuse because her father, through “cop mentality,” told his daughter that he would hurt anyone who ever hurt her, according to Pesqueira. As a result, she did not want her uncle to be affected.
In many cases, victims of child abuse deal with repercussions later in life and then take out their past traumatic experiences on their partners and/or children.
Kariuki said she sees many instances in which the adults harming the children were mistreated when they were children. This leads to a cycle of continuous misconduct.
“A lot of my clients were kids in foster care themselves. They were a part of the foster care system. They were sexually, psychologically and emotionally abused as kids,” said Kariuki. “This never gets resolved.”
Yazmine Moore is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.