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Editorial: Reporting child abuse: A step toward prevention

Child abuse may always persist in one form or another, but advocates for children will certainly never stop trying to prevent it. A bill in the General Assembly requiring hospitals to report suspected cases to law enforcement is another positive step toward protection.
Unfortunately, reports of sexual abuse of children make the news seemingly every day. Other forms of abuse and neglect ó beating, burning, insufficient supervision and a host of hurts most people would never imagine ó are so commonplace that they don’t always generate headlines. A 2005 report from the N.C. Institute of Medicine Task Force on Child Abuse Prevention said that a child is abused by a parent or caretaker every 15 minutes in this state, and one child dies of abuse every two weeks. For some children, being at the mercy of irresponsible or neglectful adults is a sad fact of life.
The medical community and law enforcement officers have long been aware of this, and the legislation to require more reporting from hospitals has their support. Current law already requires hospitals to report cases of suspected abuse to the Department of Social Services, but this law would ensure that a criminal investigation begin immediately, if necessary.
The additional reporting may seem like another burden for hospital workers, but state law already requires them to report poisonings, bullet wounds and knife injuries to police. Like those injuries, evidence of child abuse is a sign that a crime may have occurred and needs to be investigated.
If the state measure passes, it will codify a practice that has been carried out in Rowan County for some time. After a string of child-abuse deaths in 1997, the Rowan County Task Force for Child Abuse Prevention was established and developed a local protocol for handling suspected cases of child abuse and neglect that hospital workers see. The protocol requires not only that law enforcement be called promptly about suspicious symptoms; it also calls for law enforcement, Social Services case workers and hospital staff to meet for a debriefing conference to assess the case before the child is released from the hospital. Previously, a Social Services worker, after consulting with the attending doctor, could release a child before the investigating law enforcement officer arrived.
That may be more than the General Assembly is willing to require of all counties, but it’s a good model for protecting children. In the best prevention scenario, children would never have such injuries in the first place; their caretakers would be caring, wise and attentive enough to take good care of them. But in those cases when children are injured or ill enough to show up at a hospital, prompt reporting and assessment could prevent them from suffering further abuse ó even fatal abuse.
The state House unanimously approved this measure last week, and the Senate should do the same. The action could close one more hole in the safety net that too many children slip through.

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