April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and a number of professionals on the subject from the Alpena area want everyone to know: child abuse and neglect is a problem in the community, and there's something everyone can do about it.
In Alcona, Alpena and Montmorency counties, there were 746 reports of child abuse or neglect in 2012, of which 455 were assigned for investigation, John Keller, Department of Human Services director for Alcona, Alpena and Montmorency counties, said. From Jan. 1 of this year to March 31, there were 250 reports, of which 142 were assigned to investigation.
"I think there is an attitude that this doesn't happen in our community, this happens in larger communities, that's a very large misperception," he said. "Child abuse happens frequently in our communities."
More cases were reported than were assigned for investigation because people call in things that don't qualify as child abuse, Keller said. While some might call to report behavior that doesn't fit the criteria, he still urges people who suspect abuse to report it.
"We always want to encourage people to call in," he said. "All they have to do is suspect, that's the key word. It's our job to investigate. We encourage anyone that has any suspicion to call in."
Kay Kearly, District Health Department No. 4 public health nurse, agreed, adding that even if the investigation turns up no abuse or neglect, the family still might need services from an organization or government agency.
"Often times something caused someone to be concerned about a child in the family, and oftentimes it's because the family doesn't know how to parent," she said.
It's very rare for victims of child abuse to report it, with only 0.33 percent doing so, according to information from the Children's Advocacy Center of Northeast Michigan. Many times, this is because the child fears repercussions of reporting it, or even believes they deserve to be punished, Brian Clark, Children's Advocacy Center of Northeast Michigan supervisor, said.
There's also the fear of being removed from their homes, families and communities, Keller said. Even if they're in a bad situation, children won't self-report abuse because they fear being removed to an unknown place.
Some children might understand that they're being hurt by an adult, but don't realize that it's wrong or not normal, and that they don't deserve it, Kearly said.
"Children sometimes don't have the vocabulary to report (abuse) themselves," she said.
Due to these factors and others, most child abuse or neglect reports come from doctors, teachers, law enforcement or others who are mandated by state law to report suspected abuse, Keller said.
Most often, parents who abuse their children were abused themselves when they were young, Cash Kroll, Alpena County Sheriff's deputy, said.
Keller agreed, adding that substance abuse, mental illness and poverty are other risk factors for child abuse.
Some parents simply don't know how to raise children, because they themselves were raised by someone who didn't know, Clark said.
This is where parenting classes can make a big difference, Kearly said. They can prevent abuse by teaching parents how to nurture their children, and about child growth and development.
Education can make a difference in other ways, Keller said. Last year, 150 babies died due to incidents where one or both parents brought them into their beds. "We have a parent who, in the middle of the night, will roll over and smother that child," he said.
These deaths are "100 percent preventable" if parents understand safe sleeping practices, Keller said.
Another thing everyone needs to know is to never shake a baby, Kearly said. Doing so can cause severe brain trauma or death.
By educating children about abuse, they become more aware of it and what it is, and see it as something that's wrong, Clint Bohlen, Northeast Michigan Children's Behavioral Health Initiative project manager, said.
"Also, when you do education, it makes people in the community more alert to the abuse that is occurring around them," he said.
For victims of severe physical or sexual abuse, there's the Children's Advocacy Center of Northeast Michigan. It opened in December 2012, and it's currently averaging one to two cases per week, Nancy Spencer, center manager, said. It's designed to be a "safe, welcoming place for children" to undergo a forensic interview about their experience.
"They're already suffering enough trauma," she said. "We try to reduce that pain and fear that they have."
If Child Protective Services or law enforcers determine a child needs to undergo a forensic interview, the child is brought to the center and interviewed by a professional wearing plain clothes, Clark said. The interview is monitored from another room by a police officer, and possibly a CPS professional. The interview is also recorded to eliminate the need for multiple interviews.
"It's traumatic enough when a child's abused, but they keep reliving that if they have multiple interviews," Keller said.
While child advocacy centers are relatively new to the area, they're not a new concept, Kroll said. Larger cities have had them for some years. They streamline the process of interviewing victims of abuse, among other benefits.
Those who want to do something about child abuse can do something about it. Bohlen suggested getting involved in youth and children's programming, like volunteering at the Boys & Girls Club of Alpena.
"There are ways of plugging into kids' lives and loving those kids that makes a huge difference in their life," he said.
Keller suggested becoming a foster parent. There's a shortage in Alcona, Alpena and Montmorency counties, and his department has had to place children two hours away from their homes. His department has a goal to license an additional nine homes by June.
Clark urged anyone who knows of someone who's abusing a child should call the child abuse reporting hotline, tollfree at 1-855-444-3911.
Lee Szczesniak of the Exchange Club of Alpena said the club is looking for volunteers for its Parent Aid Program. Anyone who is interested can call Linda Steman at 358-5017.
Larry Sawasky, Alpena Presque Isle Child Abuse Network coordinator, said people looking to get involved with his group can call 358-4644 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The organization helps out with the Alpena County Baby Pantry and other projects.
Preventing child abuse and neglect works to everyone's advantage in the long run, Kearly said.
"Every case of child abuse and neglect in our community affects everybody in the community," she said. "Child abuse and neglect affects the courts, the schools, the medical profession, those children are going to school with our children or grandchildren, they can't learn appropriately, they can't sit, they don't have the attention span, so then that affects our children too, because they're in the same classrooms."