Taking a stand: Community involvement needed to alleviate child abuse

Date: 2014-11-18

'Screaming from the rooftops': Child abuse a problem requiring community action, experts and victims say

By Sarah Rafique

Nearly 12 years of beatings, malnutrition and mistreatment didn’t end until Kate Belus’ adopted brother was lying in a coma in the hospital and Child Protective Services stepped in.

Now, Belus wonders if it could have been prevented if her neighbors had just spoken up.

“There wasn’t ever an outlet (for me) to see that what was happening was wrong,” said Belus, 31, who now lives in Lubbock after graduating from Texas Tech. “I didn’t understand why nobody had said anything earlier.

“Once the trial happened a whole bunch of people stepped up and said, ‘Yeah, we thought something was wrong but we didn’t really say anything.’ So that’s hard. They could have stopped it earlier.”

Eventually, Belus’ parents, Christine and Richard Dodson, were sentenced to 45 years in prison for injury to a child.

Statewide, parents were the abusers in 78 percent of the confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect last year, according to the Department of Family and Protective Services.

And, whenever a child is brave enough to ask for help, Carla Olson, executive director of the Parenting Cottage, said it’s important to believe the child, because if they are rejected, they likely won’t ask for help again. It’s also important to be objective, she said.

“(Don’t express) an opinion about the parent, like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe your dad did that,’ Just keep the focus on the child,” Olson said. “A lot of times that child … will say I’m going to tell you this but only if you don’t tell. You can’t make that promise to the child, but you can say to them, ‘I know this is really hard for you to come forward and tell me this but thank you for trusting me. What I can tell you is we’re going to get you some help on this.’”

Three to four new victims daily

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services completed 2,426 child abuse and neglect investigations in Lubbock County last year. Those investigations resulted in 1,354 confirmed victims of child abuse or neglect — between three and four new victims daily.

“If there were four children per day, 120 children a month being injured by a faulty football helmet or a bicycle or tricycle that the wheels fell off of, you don’t think that somebody would be screaming from the rooftops,” Olson said. “The only difference between that and this is (it would be) more visible and it (would) affect kids that may have parents that would do something about it. These kids don’t have a voice because the highest perpetrator in most of the cases … (is) the parent, so who is going to speak up for that child?”

If you want to report child abuse, experts recommend:

■ As Olson suggested, believe the child and be objective.

■ Gathering as much information as possible.

■ Understand investigators need observable or verbal evidence.

■ If you’re not sure, still call.

Speaking up

Whenever Rheanna Archer was touched, she confided in a journal. By the time the sexual abuse stopped, the journal had six years’ worth of entries.

A child unaware of the sexual abuse she was going through, Archer didn’t know what else to do.

And it wasn’t until Archer’s mother discovered the journal that the abuse stopped.

“I was 12 when my mom finally found out … (and I thought) well part of it must be my fault because at some point my parents did finally talk to me about what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate and I still didn’t tell them,” said Archer, 27, of Lubbock. “I was mad at her at first for snooping but at the same time it was kind of a relief that somebody finally knew so it would finally stop.”

Archer encourages parents to not be afraid to talk to their children about sex and sexual abuse in an age appropriate manner. And, she said, it’s also important for caretakers to make sure children feel safe talking to them about abuse.

“I feel like it needs to be discussed as early as possible because generally the abuse has already started happening before a parent talks to their children about sexual abuse,” Archer said. “I feel that was the same with my parents. I feel like I knew it was wrong, but at the same time I didn’t know what to do about it.”

Community involvement

Belus was scared to speak up.

“I completely understand where it’s scary and I completely understand about going back into that home," she said. "It scared me for a really long time. It is hard to talk about but it is something that people need to know.”

She isn't alone. That's why people who think a child may be suffering from mental, physical or sexual abuse should call the CPS hotline or law enforcement if the child may be in immediate danger, Olson said.

“It is better safe than sorry,” she said. “If you feel that something is happening to a child, I mean, these are kids and our job is to protect them, not only as CPS, but as a society as a whole. I think that we should be looking out for what’s best for them because sometimes they don’t always feel like it’s safe for them to talk. They don’t know what the retribution is going to be for saying, ‘Yeah this happens.’”

In Lubbock County, it happens at twice the rate of the rest of the state with 18.9 cases of abuse per 1,000 residents.

Lubbock County prosecutor Barron Slack said that’s why it’s even more important for the community to get involved in reporting abuse.

“The kid doesn’t have anywhere to turn when their guardian or parents or caregivers are neglectful or are the perpetrator,” Slack said. “It’s really important for people in the community to be kind of on the lookout for those things. … It’s not something that’s so hush-hush in society and I see a lot of evidence and a lot of things being dealt with sooner, now we have a lot of conscientious teachers, who they’re not shy about calling the police or CPS if they need to.”

When reporting abuse, Olson said it’s important to have as much information as possible.

That includes the child’s name, age and address or place of employment for the child’s caregiver as well as a detailed description of the abuse that was observed.

“They’re going to make the decision. You don’t have to so if you’re not sure, call them,” Olson said. “Give them as much information that you can give them and they’ll make a determination whether it needs an investigation or whether it needs to go past the investigation stages.”

Shared responsibility

CPS investigators and caseworkers only see things through windows of time.

Although CPS tries to detect abuse and remove children from dangerous situations, Paul Zimmerman, a Department of Family and Protective Services spokesman, said preventing child abuse is a responsibility shared among everyone in a community.

“We don’t have a crystal ball that sees everything at every moment,” Zimmerman said. “You see snapshots, like ‘OK, everything looks good, they’re saying everything’s all right.’”

Although CPS workers plan to conduct sporadic investigations, sometimes the family they’re visiting is able to prepare and hide the abuse.

In addition to visiting the home and speaking with the child and parents, Lubbock County Child Protective Services investigator Crystal Cash said she also asks for references from parents, including teachers, doctors, neighbors, friends and anyone else who has contact with the child or may have been to the home.

When talking with those sources, Cash said, it’s important for people to speak up if they’re concerned.

Often times, Zimmerman said, he sees cases where neighbors, relatives or others close to an abused child could have helped in situations where children and their abusers hid the truth from CPS.

“We’ve had cases in the past where (the CPS worker) has a gut feeling something wasn’t right, but we have to have reason to believe. It has to be observable or verbal evidence and if a child is not speaking up and there are no visible signs of anything going on, you have to rule it out,” Zimmerman said. “It has to be based on evidence and on facts and that’s tough.”

The need

It’s been nearly 20 years since Belus escaped a life of abuse, without the help of neighbors or family friends.

She still has flashbacks of being locked inside a closet. She has nightmares of coming home and seeing her abusive parents standing outside waiting for her.

She’s sometimes afraid to become a parent because she knows her mom’s blood runs through her.

But, she has her own mind and surrounds herself with positive people.

She’s determined to prove her parents wrong.

“I want everything that I was told day in and day out that I would never have. ... I want to be a productive member of society. I want to break the cycle. I feel almost like it happened in a different lifetime in a way because it’s two separate lives; everything is night and day,” Belus said. “Not just my story, but the story of child abuse does definitely need to be told ... There are too many kids that go through something or end up passing away and it’s not fair. They deserve a chance.”

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