Child abuse on the rise in Nebraska

"I was 8-years-old the first time my father molested me. After all these years I can remember everything about that night like it was yesterday. The abuse continued until I was in my early teens, when I finally became strong enough to stand up for myself and stop it. If only someone had known ..." In 2009, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services received more than 30,000 reports of child abuse in our state. The quote above was shared by a local woman who was a victim of sexual abuse as a child, and though she is now an adult her story is all too familiar to all to many such victims. To protect her identity, we will refer to the woman as Jane. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and while Jane says she is glad there is a month of the year set aside specifically to raise awareness, it is her wish that everyone was more aware all the time. According to statistics released earlier this year in Kids Count 2010, the number of total child abuse and/or neglect reports received by DHHS has increased most of the past five years. There was a slight decline between the 2007 and 2008 figures, but the 2009 total reports was the highest during the 5-year period. It is obvious from these figures that child abuse and neglect remains a very real problem in our society. "Back then, and we are talking the late 60s early 70s, this kind of abuse was never talked about," says Jane. "There was no one in the schools talking to the kids, or anywhere else for that matter, about what was appropriate and what wasn't. I really think if I had ever been given a safe place and safe person to confide in I would have told about what was happening to me. But unfortunately, I wasn't." Jane says it makes her sad that child abuse, especially sexual abuse, is still somewhat of a "taboo" subject. "We haven't made as much progress in that area in the past 30 years as I would have hoped," she says. What many people may not realize is the personal responsibility we all have when it comes to reporting suspected abuse. The state of Nebraska requires all persons who have witnessed or have a reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect to report the incident to their local law enforcement agencies, or to DHHS. Less than one percent of child abuse reports to DHHS or law enforcement come from the children themselves. Children often have strong loyalties to their parents and/or the perpetrator and therefore, are not likely to report their own or siblings' abuse or neglect. These children may fear the consequences for themselves, the perpetrator and/or their parents. There is also a strong possibility the perpetrator has threatened more serious abuse if they tell. Children may be more likely to tell a trusted adult such as a teacher, care provider or family member if they believe that person will help the family. Neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse are the three main classifications under the umbrella of child abuse. Because children may experience more than one form of abuse, DHHS records all types of abuse that apply to each child individually. Over the years, neglect has been found to be the most commonly substantiated form of child maltreatment. If a child has not been provided for emotionally, physically and/or medically, it is considered neglect. Child abuse does not play favorites. It is not limited to the cities, the poor or any socio-economic class. It happens right here, in our back yards. Just two years ago a local man was sentenced to the Nebraska Department of Corrections for sexual abuse of his grandchild. The man had also done time for abusing his daughter years earlier. Naturally, this begs the question, "are our laws tough enough on abusers?", and most importantly, "what can we do to stop them?" Those are questions the Nebraska Legislature continues to debate (see accompanying article). In 2009, in the state of Nebraska, DHHS substantiated a total of 691 allegations of physical abuse, 42 allegations of emotional abuse and 439 allegations of sexual abuse against children. There were also 261 substantiated claims of emotional neglect and 5,144 substantiated allegations of physical neglect. Data shows substantiated cases are more likely to involve young children. In 2009, 65.2 percent of the children involved as substantiated victims were age 8 and under. The gender ratio for abuse victims is nearly split down the middle. Of the 5,437 total substantiated victims in Nebraska in 2009, 51.3 percent were female and 48.7 percent were male. The one area that sees the widest gender gap is sexual abuse, where 349 of substantiated allegations were female compared to 90 male. "I think the numbers for sexual abuse are undoubtedly way too low," says Jane. "People are more likely to report physical abuse or neglect, because you can see it. Sexual abuse, on the other hand, can be easily undetected a lot of the time. The sad thing is, the sexual abuse is generally just as damaging, if not more so, to the overall well-being of a child than the physical abuse. Believe me, those scars never completely heal." Jane says she believes it is imperative to begin teaching kids at a very young age about inappropriate touching and behavior, and most importantly, what to do if you ever find yourself a victim of such behavior. That education should continue through the adolescent and teen years as well. In 2009, the Nebraska Unicameral passed the Lindsey Ann Burke Act, designed to create a safer work and study environment for all students. This act prompted schools across the state to create policies for how to effectively address dating violence and implement programs to help youth ages 11-17 learn healthy relationship skills. "Those kinds of issues were just never addressed when I was that age," says Jane. "Deep down I always knew what was happening wasn't right, I just didn't know how to stop it." Jane says it is our civic duty to pay attention to the children around us. Many of us are involved with various programs or volunteer organizations where we come in contact with kids on a regular basis, yet we may not be looking close enough to see the signs of abuse. "I think a lot of times we are just afraid of getting involved. What if I'm wrong and I have falsely accused someone? Instead I think the question should be, what if I'm right?" If you know of a child you suspect may be the victim of abuse and/or neglect, report the incident to your local law enforcement or to DHHS through the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 1-800-652-1999.