Potential child abuse and neglect cases reared their heads more often in Fulton County over the past year, and drug addiction has become a primary cause.
But according to the county’s Job and Family Services Children’s Services Unit, which recognizes April as Child Abuse and Neglect Awareness Month, an abundance of help is available regionally to reduce the risk.
Unit Supervisor Maurine Clymer said a large event was held last year to recognize the annual event. However, staffing changes and a lack of funding this year meant a much smaller observance. The Children’s Services staff wore blue on April 13 in commemoration, and worked with Toni Schindler, marketing and communications director for the Fulton County Commissioners, to place public service announcements on local radio, Facebook and Twitter.
In 2015, an average of 10 children a month were in the county’s custody due to abuse or neglect. Of those, half typically were due to drug-addicted parents.
“Last year and this year it seems to be very prevalent. Fulton County has not been immune to that,” she said.
In all cases of custody, the county first seeks out relatives who may care for the children while their parents struggle with their problems. Otherwise, the children enter into foster care and are placed in a licensed home while Children’s Services works toward a plan for reunification.
“We’re not out to take children and put them in foster homes, but to maintain families,” said Clymer, a former caseworker.
County statistics for 2015 show 953 inquiries and/or reports made regarding child abuse or neglect. The reports included 171 for information and referral, 112 for sexual abuse, 192 for physical abuse, 133 for emotional malnourishment, 369 for neglect, and 141 for families in need of services.
Those allegations total over 200 more than were reported in 2014, and 439 of the reports – or 46 percent – were opened by the Children’s Services Unit for investigation.
And while the statistics are comparable to those of neighboring and similarly-sized counties in Ohio, “even one (case) is too many,” Clymer said.
Other causes for child abuse and neglect include domestic violence, parents’ mental health issues, poverty, and failing to provide for basic needs. In some instances, parents don’t provide an adequate environment in which children can flourish. That can mean everything from utility shut-offs to frequent household moves during which needs aren’t met or children aren’t enrolled in or don’t stay in school.
“A lot of it is, (parents have) just reached the breaking point,” Clymer said. “I don’t think anyone intentionally wants to harm their child. They have a lot of stresses in their life, and they just don’t know what to do. You don’t know where to go or what to do first.”
Under those circumstances, she said, in the heat of the moment they can lash out at their kids. “A lot of parents have become overwhelmed, I think, of life in general,” she said.
Fortunately, Clymer said, no cases have resulted in a major incident or fatality.
“We’ve been very lucky in this county. I think we have a lot of great resources, and we work together very well,” she said.
The Children’s Services Unit, which offers free services and has 24-hour availability, works extensively with local community resources, most of which accept Medicaid or have sliding fees based on income. When needed services are not available locally the unit will reach out to contacts in surrounding counties.
Very few child abuse or neglect cases involve parents who deliberately hurt their children, Clymer said.
“They don’t not love their children, and want the best for them,” she said.
The Fulton County Health Center assesses any child that arrives for treatment, spokesperson Steve McCoy said. “And we have to explore questions with everybody,” he said.
If a physician or nurse suspects child abuse or neglect they will contact Child Protective Services.
The Fulton County Health Department does not intervene directly in cases of child abuse or neglect, but their referrals to county help agencies may lend a hand in curbing them, said Cindy Rose, director of nursing. The Health Department is bound by law to report discovered instances of abuse or neglect, but the department’s primary goal is to connect people to proper care, Commissioner Kim Cupp said.
“One of the essential services of the Health Department is to make sure the community has access to care,” she said. The department’s referrals can potentially prevent child abuse or neglect cases rooted in mental and environmental health issues, among others.
It can be preventative in nature, or the family gets the help they need to prevent it from happening again, she said.
“Oftentimes, it’s a lack of support or understanding, or they need parenting skills. It takes a community to raise a child,” Rose said.
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.