Clark County child abuse cases rise, leaders expand prevention efforts


82,000: Reports of child abuse and neglect across Ohio in 2014

17,000: Confirmed Ohio cases of child sexual or physical abuse in 2014

331: Reports of crimes against children in Clark County in 2014

332: Reports of crimes against children in Clark County in 2015

$128,800: State grant awarded to Clark County Child Advocacy Center for expansion

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The Springfield-News Sun digs deep into issues that effect public safety. For this story, Reporter Allison Wichie talked to local mental health providers, prosecutors, children’s experts and victims, as well as analyzed state and local data.

The number of child abuse cases reported in Clark County climbed again last year, prompting advocates and service providers to expand aid for victims and families.

The Child Advocacy Center in Springfield received more than 330 reports of crimes against children last year — the highest in recent years. The center handled about 310 cases in 2014.

More than half of those reports were of sexual or felony-level physical abuse. The other cases included emotional abuse, neglect or children who have been witnesses to other violent crimes.

“These crimes can leave a lasting impact on children,” said Wendy Holt, director of the CAC.

Of the nearly 82,000 cases of child abuse or neglect reported in Ohio in 2014, more than 17,000 physical and sexual abuse reports were confirmed through investigations, state data shows.

Services to treat victims have expanded recently in Clark County, thanks to a more than $120,000 state grant. But experts said the only way to stop child abuse is for the community to be educated on signs of abuse and trauma in children and how they can report report possible crimes.

“We as adults need to intervene — we need to get these kids, we have to get them services and help them,” she said.

Not a stranger lurking

A vast majority — 93 percent — of Clark County children victimized last year were abused by someone they knew.

“It’s not a stranger lurking in the corner,” Holt said.

Many abusers were a parent, step-parent, relative or close acquaintance of the parents like a girlfriend or boyfriend, according to statistics from the Child Advocacy Center.

That was the case with Malynda Popham’s children. She offered to tell her story in hopes of stopping other abuse happening in the community.

“The first thing that I feel is still just the anger,” she said when hearing about other crimes against children.

Popham’s ex-husband, Larry Fitch, was convicted on multiple charges of the rape and attempted rape of his two children in 2002.

“Then it just brings up the memories and I feel sorrow, just the deep sorrow I remember feeling,” she said.

Fitch received a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 36 years. He won’t be considered for parole until September 2037.

Crimes against children don’t only happen in certain neighborhoods, or in families with certain profiles, said Suzanne Sunshine, director of Behavioral Health Services at the Rocking Horse Community Health Center in Springfield.

Rocking Horse offers physical and mental health services for hundreds of families in need, including child victims.

Other issues such as the economy, job availability and drug use can affect what happens to children in any home, Sunshine said.

“People are stressed out and when stress is up — it’s a perfect market for abusing your children,” she said.

‘It was a sigh of relief’

The rising number of children coming into the Child Advocacy Center lead the group to add more services.

A more than $120,000 state grant has allowed the center to expand mental health services it offers to children in-house, said Sue Fralick, senior vice president of operations of Mental Health Services for Clark and Madison Counties.

Two on-site therapists now work 20 hours a week at the advocacy center, offering free mental health treatment for child victims and counseling for their families.

“By providing the services on-site we’re able to help families immediately and they feel safe here — this is a safe place to come,” Fralick said.

Many families in the community have learned to trust the CAC and the team that works there. Popham said she doesn’t know where she or her children would be now without the initial therapy and counseling they received from the center.

“It was a sigh of relief, just such a relief for me that there was actually a center there geared toward abuse victims,” Popham said.

The advocacy center’s expansion to include on-site mental health services goes hand-in-hand with its multi-disciplinary team that handles each child’s case, said Amy Smith, Clark County assistant prosecutor who handles crimes against children.

The team brings together the prosecutor’s office, law enforcement, mental health services, physical health services and victim’s advocates to meet bi-weekly to discuss every case of abuse reported at the center.

“We’re all talking to each other and have the same information so no one is left out of the loop, which really does help to make a cohesive treatment plan as well as a cohesive investigation,” Smith said.

If children involved in abuse cases don’t get mental health treatment, Sunshine said, they often become perpetrators themselves or fall victim to other crimes, such as drugs or domestic violence.

Treatment can stop the cycle, she said.

“As parents, as friends, as neighbors, as other family members — we have to not be afraid to address the issue,” Sunshine said.

Teachers and staff members in the Springfield City School District come in contact with about 8,000 students each day.

“So often times we are that first line of responders,” said Dr. Martin Johnson, the district’s clinical psychologist.

Teachers are mandatory reporters of child abuse, meaning state law requires them to contact children’s services if they suspect any abuse or neglect.

The district started a “Trauma Informed Learning Community” last school year as a resource to train staff members about signs of trauma in a student’s life.

“It’s not just a school’s job to just ensure that students learn, but that students are safe,” Johnson said.

This same philosophy of looking out for all children should be the motto of the community, Sunshine said, to make sure no child is a victim to abuse.

“We have to fight this together or it’s never going to stop,” she said.

‘I didn’t know what to watch for’

Abuse — whether physical or sexual — wasn’t something Popham knew much about before it happened in her family.

“It was something that nobody talked about and because I didn’t know that it happened, I didn’t know what to watch for,” she said.

Now she recalls signs of her ex-husband’s abuse she missed when it was happening. She wishes she knew what to look for a decade ago so she might have helped her children sooner.

Child abuse must be talked about to stop it, advocates said..

“It’s very important that we get rid of the stigma of shame and embarrassment for these types of crimes because there should be no shame for this,” Smith said.

The focus should be on how to identify potential victims and then treatment for children and families.

Education in the community about warning signs of trauma and possible abuse is the first step, Sunshine said.

Each case of abuse and trauma is different, she said, but some of the red flags include behavioral issues, acting out, aggressive behavior for no particular reason, moodiness, depression, sexualized behavior, withdrawn attitudes or changes in weight.

“Even little things like girls who want to hide their bodies, who get a sense of shame of their bodies,” Sunshine said.

These signs shouldn’t elicit a response of, “What’s wrong with you?” she said. Rather the behavior should make adults question, “What happened to you?”

Parents and guardians should also talk to their children about what is the right and wrong ways adults should touch children, Holt said.

“Starting at a young age, I’m a big advocate of teaching correct body parts, using the correct terminology for their body parts,” Holt said.

Children should be comfortable talking to trusted adults about “touches” or “secrets” other adults in their lives might be trying to hide, she added.

Service organizations in the county continue to expand their education outreach to families and other groups, Fralick said.

A Trauma Task Force — which includes members from Mental Health Services, Rocking Horse and CAC — continues to spread the word about trauma signs and treatment in the community, she said.

The more they spread the message about what trauma and abuse looks like, Sunshine said, the better chance they have of ending it.

Popham agreed.

“Child abuse is real; it’s happening today, it’s happening right now,” she said. “It may not happen right next door, but it could happen two doors down. It’s happening and we need to stop it.”

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