A Fight That’s Far From Over

news-2Child abuse is declining, but neglect and substance abuse remain problems in local families
There were 527 cases of substantiated child abuse reported in Santa Cruz County in 2009, the last year for which there is data in the 2010 Child Welfare Services Reports for California. That is nine cases of abuse per 1,000 youth.

Jarring as the number is, it is significantly less than the 872 cases reported in 2000, when the Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project (CAP) began tracking the data in its annual report. The number has fluctuated over the last decade, peaking at 923 cases in 2004 and reaching its lowest at 527 cases in ’09.  Since the CAP put forth the community goal “By the year 2010, children in Santa Cruz County will live in safer families and communities” in 2005, the number has decreased by 6 percent. Substantiated cases are those where, following an investigation, it is confirmed that abuse actually did occur.

According to the Director of Santa Cruz County’s Family and Children’s Services Division, Judy Yokel, the county responded to 2,600 reports of child abuse in their last fiscal year (’09-’10). About 60 percent of those reports warranted face-to-face investigations, and less were deemed substantiated. Overall, Yokel says the numbers are unmistakably trending down.

“It definitely has gone down, there is no question about that,” she says. “We’ve had fewer referrals and fewer substantiated cases and fewer children in foster care over the years.” This has been a statewide trend, according to Yokel: the number of substantiated cases of child abuse in California has gone down by 23 percent in the last 10 years and by 28 percent in Santa Cruz County.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of families in need out there,” Yokel adds. “It just happens to be true that we are getting fewer reports, and I think a lot of that is due to the prevention programs.”

When a referral doesn’t call for opening a case in juvenile court or another of the penal measures the county has for dealing with substantiated abuse situations, Yokel and her team refer families to their differential response program, Families Together.

The program, which operates out of the Santa Cruz County Counseling Center (SCCCC), is aimed at prevention: “getting at it before it becomes an issue,” according to Cynthia Wells, director of Child and Family Development Programs at SCCCC.

“The program is voluntary,” says Wells. “It’s moving away from the idea that child welfare is always punitive. It’s truly there to help families, trying to intervene before any issues arise.” Families Together helps between 60 and 70 families a year, thoroughly screening each family to provide individualized counseling and linking them with a variety of county services they may need. Ninety-two percent of those families do not have another referral to Child Protection Services after completing the program.

SCCCC is also home to Primeros Pasos, another program working to prevent child abuse locally. Both Primeros and Families Together were launched in the latter half of the last decade, and their growth and development has correlated with the decline in substantiated cases of child abuse reported over the last several years.

Primeros Pasos began five years ago with a federal Abandoned Infant Act grant the county received to combat child abuse. The program went on to help 90 families over the first four-year grant cycle with an 80 percent success rate. SCCCC took over the second generation of Primeros Pasos in 2009 and has enrolled 40 families with 83 children since.

Also a preclusion program, Primeros concentrates on parents—especially young mothers or pregnant women—with substance abuse issues. “The focus is substance abuse treatment because moms and dads in recovery are better parents,” says Will O’Sullivan, SCCCC’s director of Community Recovery Services, matter-of-factly. Primeros aims to sow the seeds of good—and sober—parenting in families before child abuse occurs.

“Often times, unfortunately, the way substance abuse treatment happens is further down the line and people are in the ravages of substance abuse, addictions have taken their toll and families have been torn apart and there is a lot of rebuilding that has to happen,” says O’Sullivan. “A lot of that happens because of a lack of resources.”

The work Primeros Pasos has done to address parental substance abuse is particularly pertinent to Santa Cruz County, where the most common form of child abuse, by far, is neglect—a frequent byproduct of parental drug and/or alcohol abuse. (Two hundred and forty four of the 527 abuse reports in 2009 were for “general neglect” and 52 were for “severe neglect.”)

“Neglect over time has its own destructive outcomes,” explains O’Sullivan. “Not just the [presence] of abuse but the omission of good parenting takes a real toll.

“If you look at any studies on abuse and neglect you’d find that substance abuse was a huge indicator and factor in both,” he continues. “[Primeros Pasos is] focused on intervening before neglect and abuse come into play because we know that substance-abusing households are not healthy environments.”

Another leading trigger for child abuse—one that’s not specific to Santa Cruz—is the down economy.

“One of the things that we are seeing across the board is the increase of stress in families,” says Wells, from Families Together. “The father that is not working, or the family that is about to become homeless. When a family is experiencing that kind of stress, that is an environment where children could be at risk. The economy is having a huge impact on our families.”

Contrary to the numbers in the CAP, Wells says Families Together is seeing more at-risk families than usual and predicts a rise in child abuse cases in next year’s report.

“The economy is catching up with us and I think you’ll see that number spike next year,” says Wells.

This anomaly is common in statistical data: just as the 2009 figures may finally be representing the decrease in child abuse at the hands of the prevention programs implemented over the last five years, the impact the economy is having on families may take a few years to present itself in the data. As Wells puts it, “The numbers haven’t caught up with the reality.”

Wells warns against slackening the focus on the problem because of the positive downward trend in numbers. She adds that the economy is taking its toll on public services like Families Together, and a lack of funding will mean fewer families can be served.

“We’re looking at this [potential] increase of child abuse but we’re not able to expand the program to meet the need,” says Wells. “I think we’re all going to see the results of that.”

On the up side, she says Families Together is only getting stronger as it gets more established. She says, “Over the four years what we’ve seen is that it’s become increasingly more successful and I think that we have a much better idea of how to successfully support these families.”

Over at Primeros Pasos, program leaders are preparing to graduate their first round of clients from the first year of service. O’Sullivan, like Wells, believes these prevention programs are ultimately a promising response to a very ugly, persistent problem.

“We’re definitely part of the answer, there’s not doubt about that,” says O’Sullivan. “Change is possible when people are given the resources and the environment and the support.”

To report child abuse, call 1 (877) 505-3299 or (831) 454-2273. Lines are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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