The number of child abuse cases reported in Ventura County has sharply increased over the past two years, and the problem is expected to worsen as the holidays and looming recession put more pressure on parents.
According to county statistics, 4,179 cases were reported in fiscal year 1987-88, but over the last two years the number of cases has topped 5,100 annually.
Although the number of reported abuse cases drops off during the Christmas break, it increases after the holidays when school is back in session, officials said.
"Adults usually want to hold things together over the holidays," said Sallie Danenberg, director of child abuse programs for Interface, a private nonprofit social service agency. "But afterwards the rate really mushrooms."
"There are a lot of expectations that are not met over the holidays," said Diana Caskey, a program assistant with the county Children's Services. "People become depressed and take it out on their children."
Caskey said social workers are preparing care packages to help lift the spirits of abused youngsters brought to the county center. And they are holding a toy drive for children in foster care.
Last fiscal year, nearly 180 of the children placed in foster homes were under the age of 5. Fifty-five children were taken away from their parents because of sexual abuse and 95 because of physical abuse. About 70 children were neglected and 47 were abandoned.
"We're seeing a breakdown of the family structure," Danenberg said. "Our lives are becoming more difficult and there is more stress now on the family than before."
Ruth Ransom, a social worker for Children's Services, added: "If people are worried about losing their jobs, you start seeing more abuse.. . . They're mad at everything else so they take it out on their children. If we have a recession, we'll see it in the referrals."
There were also more reports of drug use among parents last year, officials said. Nearly 160 youngsters were placed in foster homes because their parents were arrested on drug charges, outstanding warrants or driving under the influence of an intoxicating substance. Also, there were 20 reports of babies born addicted to drugs over the past two years.
"One thing we have noticed is the children are more troubled," Caskey said. "It's not easy to figure out why, but drugs seem to be contributing to the problem. A drug addict's parenting is less effective. They don't teach children right from wrong values. And they grow up without the love they need."
In addition to pressure and drug use, Ventura County officials said other factors contribute to increased reports of child abuse. More professionals who deal with children--such as schoolteachers--are reporting the abuse to local authorities because they are mandated to do so by law, they said. Also, more community members are aware of the problem.
"We're educating people more," said Lela Dobroth, who supervises child abuse cases for the district attorney's office. "We're going into the schools and we're making children more aware of the problem. We're encouraging them to report it."
According to Danenberg, child abuse spans all cultural and socioeconomic lines.
"People have a perception that child abuse doesn't occur in Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village because those are affluent areas," Danenberg said. "And we tend to think poor black and Hispanic families would have a higher rate."
Yet in the county, Danenberg said, 62% of the reported child abuse cases occurred in white families. The estimated percentage of whites countywide is 66%.
The majority of cases reported in 1989-90 occurred in the Oxnard and Port Hueneme areas, with 1,853. The Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Camarillo and Moorpark areas followed close behind, with 1,731 reports.
There were 1,523 reports of abuse in the Ventura, Ojai, Fillmore and Santa Paula areas. The reports, which are broken down into six categories such as physical abuse and severe neglect, totaled 5,107.
When the reports are made, social workers for Children's Services evaluate the situation. If the abuse is substantiated, the child is placed in a foster home or the family is required to go into therapy.
The children's agency used to try to place children in foster homes, Caskey said, but now social workers are trying more to keep families together.
"It's very disruptive on the children to separate them from their parents," she said.
If parents are affluent, they are ordered to seek private counseling.
Lower-income families are referred to either Interface or Child Abuse and Neglect Inc., two agencies that contract with the county.
They are also visited every week by a social worker who charts their progress.
Danenberg said the saddest case she has seen involved a 13-year-old girl who was ignored by her drug-addict mother and molested by her mother's boyfriends.
"Her mother was spending all their welfare money on drugs, alcohol and men," Danenberg said. "But the little girl was so pleased with herself for her ability to find clothing in a trash can behind a thrift store. She was making do with what the thrift store would throw away."
And although Danenberg said she found the case depressing, she also found that it offered a ray of hope.
"It shows how ingenious and creative children are," she said. "They can be happy with far less than people think. These are the things that keep me going."