By RORYE O’CONNOR
MT. VERNON — —
Reported child abuse and neglect in Southern Illinois is on the rise, says the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
Reported cases showed a 5.4 percent increase from last year, the report states.
Calls to DCFS are indicating an increase in abuse and neglect over last year already, said DCFS spokesman David Clarkin.
“There has been a 5.4 percent increase in calls downstate,” he said. “In the past, that has let to an increase in indicated cases. We differentiate those because when a report is received, it takes up to 60 days to investigate.”
He said the belief that actual indicated cases are on the rise is based on the last four years of data.
Clarkin said about two-thirds of reports DCFS receives come from mandated reporters, which includes law enforcement, State’s Attorneys, healthcare professionals and teachers.
Jefferson County is one of 16 downstate counties that has more than double the statewide average for abuse and neglect rates, according to information from DCFS.
Jefferson County has the third-highest rate of reported cases of child abuse or neglect in the state, Clarkin said.
“The rate of indicated child abuse cases for the last year, July 1 through June 30, was 341 victims per 10,000 children,” Clarkin said. “That means roughly one in 30 children were touched by abuse or neglect last year.”
Last year across the state, there were 91 indicated cases of abuse or neglect for every 10,000 Illinois children.
Indicated cases are those in which an investigation of suspected child abuse or neglect has revealed credible evidence that the abuse or neglect occurred, information states.
The reasons for increases in child abuse and neglect vary from community to community, Clarkin said.
“We’re not assuming it’s the same cause in every community,” he said. “I have talked to people across the state over the past several days. A consistent theme I’ve seen emerging is that in communities where there isn’t an infrastructure of non-profits to help families cope with the underlying causes of neglect indication, such as lack of care, not eating, going without a coat or even not having a roof over their head — where there’s no system of support, you’re going to see those indications of neglect rise.”
Rhonda Edmonson, executive director of the United Way of South Central Illinois, said poverty is a large indicator of the possibility of child abuse or neglect.
She said in the last several years, the number of students who receive free or reduced lunch at schools has increased, another indicator of poverty in the area.
“We’ve seen a decrease in funding to human services,” she said. “There are lots of decreases and cuts in staffing. All human service programs have received such drastic cuts.”
The United Way of South Central Illinois has lost about $100,000 in support from its communities in the last four years, Edmonson said, due to the economy.
“We have lost programs in all kinds of ways,” she said. “We haven’t been able to provide the level of support we used to, and organizations have either shut their doors or decreased their programs. There are some programs that are not as available in our community. There’s very limited utility assistance and childcare, and I know the schools struggle with it all the time.”
Though Edmonson acknowledged the need of the community, she said there could be another reason Jefferson County has the third-highest rate of reported child abuse and neglect in the state.
“Because of having the Amy Center here, they do such a wonderful job, and it’s possible that more cases are being reported,” she said. “They provide the Good Touch/Bad Touch program and children know how to report when something is going on. I wonder if the numbers are higher because we’re doing a better job in teaching children to speak out.”
She said programs such as People Against Violent Environments and the Court-Appointed Special Advocates of Jefferson County also may be having an effect on the report rate.
“I’m not sure that Jefferson County is different,” she said. “(Child abuse and neglect) is there everywhere, unfortunately. I wonder if we’re doing a better job of being visible about it.”
Becky Whisenant, executive director of CASA of Jefferson County, said the organization currently has enough volunteers to provide advocates for half of the cases currently being seen in the Jefferson County court system.
Whisenant has worked at CASA for five years, and before that, worked at the Amy Center for nine years. She said she has seen a steady increase of abuse, as well as the severity of acts being committed.
“We’re seeing more infants that are being abused,” she said. “The poverty in this region is worse than I have ever seen.”
In response to the rising numbers of abuse and neglect across the state, DCFS announced Wednesday it plans to move staff to the “front lines” and increase its numbers of investigators. The department seeks an additional $38,048,200 in funding to do so, Clarkin said.
“We want to help families get the help they need,” he said. “(The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) has agreed to a reorganization, and starting next week, we’ll be headed to Springfield, where we will work with lawmakers to seek a necessary restoration in funding to make this possible.”
There are 35 counties in Illinois with more than 175 cases per 10,000 children per year, Clarkin said, and those will be the main focus of the reorganization.