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Child abuse epidemic

The number of child abuse cases is rising year after year in Columbia County
by: Stover E. Harger III ASSESSING ABUSE — Though they resemble toys to the untrained eye, these anatomically correct dolls are used by assessment specialists to determine whether children have been sexually abused. Children sometimes have a difficult time verbalizing instances of maltreatment, but are better able to use the dolls to relate abuse experiences.

The number of child abuse victims in Columbia County is increasing year after year.

Child abuse awareness advocates call it an epidemic, one that ruins families for generations and costs the government an estimated $67 million daily in direct costs to the health care, law enforcement, judicial and child welfare systems.

Statistics published in the Oregon Department of Human Services' 2010 'Child Welfare Data Book,' paint a harrowing portrait of child abuse in all its forms in our county.

In 2010, 214 county children were victims of abuse at a rate of 18.8 per 1,000 kids. This is up from 192 victims in 2009 and 120 in 2008. Statewide, 11,188 of Oregon's 884,078 children were abused in 2010 at a rate of 12.7 per 1,000.

Deputy District Attorney John Berg, who prosecutes many of the child abuse cases that make it to the court system, said traditionally there is a decline in the amount of reported abuse during the summer because children are not in school where teachers keep an eye on their well being. This summer, however, he witnessed something different.

'It seems like we've had a steady flow of reports over the summer as well,' he said. 'It seems like there's a lot, but there is always too many.'

On the forefront of the battle against child abuse is Columbia County's nonprofit Child Abuse Assessment Program, the Amani Center, which started in 2000 to help treat victims. Their interviews and examinations of children are often used in criminal abuse cases.

Amani Center Director Lisa Galovich said since assessing their first child in 2002, the center has seen an increasing amount of kids. The Amani Center saw 34 children that year. Now, staff do around 500 intakes yearly, not all of which make it to the detailed assessment process. Galovich said the center completes about four assessments a week, with many of the abuse cases sexual in nature.

'It's been a busy year,' Galovich said.

One factor that seems to contribute to an increase in child abuse is the economy, which is long believed by many to play a role because of the stress often thrust upon parents suffering from financial hardships. A study published last month by the journal Pediatrics seems to link the number of kids hospitalized in the U.S. with abusive head trauma with the faltering economy.

Before the late 2007 economic crash, the average rate of abusive head injuries of kids was 8.9 per year per 100,000 children. After the crash, that number rose to 14.7 per 100,000 kids.

Child welfare advocates say abuse is so painful to children that it often leaves mental scars that last through that person's life. Research shows that many times abusers were abused themselves.

Apart from the physical and emotional turmoil abuse causes in children and their families, there is a clear economic impact, according to the Prevent Child Abuse America group. They estimate the cost of child abuse and neglect to each taxpaying family is $1,461 a year.

While there is no single cure for child abuse, one thing will help - talking about the issue, no matter how hard it may be to think about, Galovich said.

'It's a difficult conversation for people to have,' she said.

Coming up

Read next week's issue of The Spotlight for the second part of our detailed examination of the issues surrounding child abuse in our county and beyond.