Child abuse runs deep


Staff writer

Governor Gary Locke has proclaimed April Child Abuse Prevention Month, officially adding Washington to the nationwide recognition.

The move encourages the public to watch out for signs of child abuse and neglect and to report it when suspected.

“Preventing child abuse is the responsibility of each and every one of us,” said state Department of Social and Human Services spokeswoman Kathy Spears.

Spears said that in many cases, parents struggle with alcohol or substance abuse. Sometimes, it’s just stress caused by a job layoff or financial difficulties.

“Fatigue, stress, tension, frustration, anxiety and conflict are a normal part of all our lives at one time or another,” said Carol Jenkins, manager of the Children’s Protection Program at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center.

She said this year’s campaign urges parents “to have a plan for managing these stressful emotions so that when they occur, every child can be cared for in a safe and nurturing environment. Having a plan ensures all children will be treated with the care they deserve.”

DSHS receives referrals of suspected abuse and neglect from educators, healthcare providers, hospitals and physicians.

In fact, since the state’s mandatory reporting law was enacted in 1971, the number of professions in which people are required to report actual or suspected abuse, as well as probable at-risk abuse situations, has expanded. Originally, medical professionals, teachers, clergy, pharmacists, DSHS officials and social workers were required to report abuse.

Today, psychologists, juvenile probation officers, law enforcement officers, social service counselors, medical examiners, coroners, licensed pathologists, state corrections employees, staff members of living skills programs, staff or volunteers in the state Family and Children’s Ombudsman Office, and any adult who resides with a child they believe has been abused are also required to report abuse to Child Protective Services (CPS), DSHS, local law enforcement or the person in charge of the organization in which they work.

DSHS reports that from July 2002 to July 2003, there were 6,792 accepted referrals in King County involving 10,518 children.

Statewide, DSHS investigated 40,000 reports of abuse or neglect in 2003. The reports involved 61,000 children.

DSHS lists several signs of child abuse and neglect. They include:

• Unexplained injuries.

• Depression.

• Fear of a certain adult.

• Difficulty making friends or trusting others.

• Sudden changes in eating or sleeping patterns.

• Inappropriate sexual behavior.

• Poor hygiene.

• Secrecy.

• Hostility.

To help raise awareness, the Washington Council for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, along with other organizations, is promoting a blue-ribbon campaign. The movement was started in 1989 by a Virginia grandmother after her grandson was killed by his mother’s boyfriend. She tied a blue ribbon on her van antenna, because she never wanted to forget the black and blue bruises on her grandchild.

People wondered, and she answered. Soon after, local business, restaurants, police and television and radio stations followed her lead. The campaign went nationwide.

Organizations that assist abused or neglected children and their parents in south King County include:

• Federal Way Family Support Center, which merged with Valley Cities Counseling and Consultation two years ago and addresses domestic violence counseling, mental health issues and chemical dependency. The number is 835-9975.

• The Korean Women’s Association, which assists victims of domestic violence and victims of child abuse or neglect. The program director is Miyeoung Lee (946-1995).

• YWCA, which has resources for homeless and abused women and their children. It also provides abuse prevention services.

• Childhaven, an organization that provides early intervention and treatment to abused or neglected children up to 5 years old. It has two branches that serve the Federal Way area. The Eli Creekmore Memorial Branch in Burien, named after a boy who died at the hands of his father, is helping two children who live in Federal Way, said Marie Sohl, the branch’s program manager. The number there is (206) 248-4903. At the Patrick L. Gogerty Branch in Auburn, the number there is (253) 833-5908.

Deborah Ronnholm, chief executive officer and president of King County Childhaven, said she worked in a psychiatric children’s hospital in another state prior to joining Childhaven, and she realized that many of the children in the hospital had suffered abuse or neglect when very young.

Ronnholm, who earned degrees in psychology and counseling from Antioch University, said childhood abuse and neglect increase the possibility of criminal behavior and mental disorders later in life. And in worst-case scenarios, it can contribute to psychopathology.

“It’s hard sometimes for the community at large to look at a very small child and think that that little one could grow up to be violent and a criminal,” she said.

At Childhaven, abused children receive therapeutic childcare, while parents learn parenting skills.

In addition, Childhaven provides a nursery for children when parents are in crisis and a program to care for children affected by a parent’s substance abuse.

Staff members touch, hold, talk with and play with the children referred to Childhaven. Parents watch the behavior, participate and learn to emulate it, Ronnholm said.

“We ensure that children have that emotional attachment to someone. That’s really the basis of what makes us caring and productive human beings,” she said.

Many of the parents were themselves abused or neglected as children, Ronnholm said, so they can be stuck in a cycle of violence due to lack of awareness or lack of parenting skills.

But she estimated that 70 percent of parents who participate in Childhaven’s activities with their children eventually develop more positive interaction styles and parenting skills.

In addition, adults who once attended Childhaven return and talk about how the organization changed their lives.

But, Ronnholm added, no intervention can lead to a lifetime of affects on physical health, mental health, social interaction and behavior.

“We know that without a nurturing, caring, consistent environment, a child’s brain is not going to develop as it should,” Ronnholm said.

And if an abused or neglected child doesn’t receive early intervention, they’re “six times more likely to be arrested for violent crime and 12 times more likely to be identified as more violent,” she said.

Social skills and self-esteem of abused children suffer. Compare a brain scan of a child from a healthy, nurturing home, Ronnholm said, with a brain scan from an abused or neglected child of the same sex and age, and you’ll find the abused child’s brain is often smaller. Dark gaps show places where there is no brain matter.

“There’s simply parts of the brain that don’t develop,” Ronnholm said.

Like Spears, Ronnholm said it’s everyone’s responsibility to report suspected child abuse and neglect, and that’s the main message of Child Abuse Prevention Month.

“It’s really to raise awareness and that people in the community know that there are things they can do,” Ronnholm said.

“I know people are afraid of calling CPS,” she said.

“I think the phrase ‘It takes an entire village to raise a child’ has been overused. But as we have developed as human beings, we have moved further and further from that concept.”

It’s time to return to that mind-set, she added.

Staff writer Elizabeth Ciepiela: 925-5565,

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