"We recognize that the responsibility for… prevention of child fatalities lies with the community, not with any single agency or entity." —Hampton Roads Regional Child Fatality Review Team, 2010.
They're white and black, boys and girls, infants and school-aged, military and civilian, rural and urban. They're starved and beaten, choked and drowned. They are the children who die from neglect and abuse in Hampton Roads every year, right here in our neighborhoods.
Their diversity accounts for why some children fall through the cracks of the multiple social safety nets in place. There are civilian and military programs galore, government and nonprofit agencies, local and state programs, all devoted to protecting children when parents and caretakers won't. But in the final instance, say those who work in the field, it requires everyone in the community to take responsibility, not just the mandated reporters, such as medical personnel, teachers, active-duty military and law enforcement.
"It doesn't happen in a void," says Laurel Uhlar, deputy commonwealth's attorney for Newport News. "I think that neighbors see things and interpret them differently. If children are abused, there are signs. I think the biggest thing is a failure to report — the people who did nothing."
Joahnna Schuchert, executive director of the nonprofit Prevent Child Abuse Virginia, echoes the sentiment, noting the reluctance of people to get involved with "other people's business."
The major barriers to preventing abuse are culturally ingrained, says Schuchert, citing the results of an extensive study by the Frameworks Institute. It found that the general public still believes that parenting is instinctive; that seeking parenting help indicates that there's something bad about the family; and that when it comes to abuse, people separate themselves — "that's those people" — rather than reaching out.
"Babies don't come with directions. It's learned behavior," she says. "We won't reach everyone until we change people's attitudes towards parenting and the community's role."
In Newport News alone, social work supervisor Glenna Hundley reports that the city's Child Protective Services department received more than 1,000 complaints in 2009-2010. "We get a lot of calls about unsupervised children — they're wandering, left in the car, left at home while the caretaker runs errands," she says. "We do a lot of educating parents. It's often not intentional. It's just because people don't know."
Ruby Darby-Gatling of the Hampton Child Protection Team agrees. "It's a lack of parenting skills, not knowing how to raise a child. Some are young kids, still developing themselves. A teen or young mother gets overwhelmed. They need someone to turn to."
The state's 120 local social service offices and their child protection divisions are at the heart of prevention and response efforts. Anyone can report suspected abuse to a local hotline or the state hotline, 1-800-552-7096, which is staffed around the clock. Complaints can be anonymous but callers are encouraged to give their names, which can only be released by court order.
"We try to intervene quickly, respecting the parents' rights. We have to balance concerns of safety and the privacy of the family," says Rita Katzman, manager of Child Protective Services for the state. She's excited about new "structured decision making" training for workers that will give them better decision-making tools on intervention. Currently, intervention isn't always a cure-all — in 2010, the families of one-third of the victims had prior contact with social services.
Often, national data show, violence in the home spills over to the children, either immediately or by creating a generational pattern of abuse. That was the case in Newport News in the death of 17-month-old Angeli Callender, whose mother, Lillian, had protective orders against successive abusive partners.
But Lillian Callenders petitions for protective orders did not trigger an investigation by Child Protective Services.
"There's no connection," says Karen Griffin, legal advocate for Transitions Family Violence Services. "A mother would have to call CPS in order for them to look at the situation."
Gatling is hoping that the proposed development of a Family Justice Center in Hampton will provide a more comprehensive approach to domestic violence services. "It affects children so much," she says.
Some see the fragmentation of services as a contributing problem. "Everything is not available to everyone. People with private insurance can get caught," says Betty Wade Coyle, director of the Hampton Roads affiliate of Prevent Child Abuse Virginia. "The working poor and middle class don't always have access." Coyle also cites those who don't speak English and those who don't read as populations that aren't being reached by current efforts.
Through Medicaid, many qualify for the Mother/Baby Program offered through Sentara Home Care Services. "It's a well-kept secret," says nurse and clinical manager Linda Jordan, estimating enrollees, including Spanish speakers, at between 100 and 150 at all times. The program monitors mothers during pregnancy and babies up to 2 years old with home visits. "Its greatest help is that it gives mothers someone that they're connected to, to bond with — and there's someone there to observe and assess when medical intervention is needed," says Jordan.
Statistics show that children with disabilities are significantly more likely to suffer from abuse — and that was the case with at least two of the recent Peninsula deaths. To address this, every city has Infant & Toddler Connection programs aimed at children up to the age of 3 who are at risk for developmental delays.
At Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters, which serves the medical needs of many of the region's special-needs children, discharge planners work to connect families with services in the community as well as offering their own support groups and education. Specially trained social workers help families navigate the Medicaid waiver process for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
"They're very complicated and some have very long waits," says Cyndi Fisher, director of medical management and Care Connection. The latter provides a bridge from the hospital to the community for those with a chronic disability. Its programs also instruct families on the use of specialized medical equipment in the home. "Adherence is difficult," says Fisher. "I wish we could go out and follow everyone. You have to trust the parents' judgment, which isn't always so great, as we know."
Military families also have access to any number of programs — family advocacy, new parent support, deployment preparation, early intervention — but there's no way to ensure that every family that needs them will take the necessary action to receive them.
"The information is all around but they need to be proactive," says Marlene Cherrye with Army Community Service, 633rd Medical Group, at Langley Air Force Base. Lucia Herndon, a nurse at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, cites insurance constraints resulting in fewer home visits by nurses as problematic. And families who need the help are the most likely to reject it, she says.
That leaves family, friends and neighbors to do the right thing.
"We don't want to think it," says Uhlar, "but if you're uncomfortable with a kid's life, make the call to Child Protective Services. No one has to know that you made the call."
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