Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 16, 2011

By Shavonne Potts
SALISBURY — Each month, an average of nine children are in the custody of the Rowan County Department of Social Services.
Most of these children are victims of some sort of abuse, whether physical or sexual, or neglect.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Across the country many wear blue ribbons each April in memory of those who have died as a result of child abuse.
The nationwide symbol for child abuse prevention is a blue pinwheel. Advocates are spreading the word about the Pinwheels for Prevention campaign, focusing on making sure abuse never occurs.
“Pinwheels promote the good part of childhood,” said Kristine Craig, a family advocate with Prevent Child Abuse Rowan.
In fiscal year 2010, Rowan Social Services took 2,786 reports of abuse or neglect. Of those 1,817 were investigated. There were 969 that were not investigated but referred to other agencies such as mental health facilities.
Law enforcement submits nearly half the reports of abuse and neglect. The school system submits about half. A small percentage come from anonymous callers or family members.
A social worker makes an assessment during a screening process that must take place before an investigation can begin. The social worker has a mandated amount of time to initiate contact with the child and parents.
A social worker meets regularly with other agencies to discuss the progress.
“The types of cases have changed. They are not as simple as they used to be,” said Child Protective Services Supervisor Wendy Baskins. Even so, the goal remains to reunite a child with his or her birth family.
“If we can keep the family intact that is preferable in most cases,” said Social Services Attorney Cynthia Dry.
If the child can’t be reunified with a parent, the agency works to place them with a relative in an effort to keep the family dynamic intact, said Lisa Berger, a supervisor with the Child Protective Services division.
“We are obligated to move toward a plan up to including terminating the parental rights,” said Tom Brewer, a program administrator for the children’s services division of Rowan County Social Services.
Baskins often sees a rise in the number of abuse cases reported following a period of education.
She talks to day care centers, school counselors and future teachers about the warning signs and how to report abuse.
“We help them feel comfortable reporting,” Baskins said.
Multiple agencies in Rowan County work together to investigate abuse cases.
Guardian ad Litem
Guardian volunteers investigate the alleged abuse independently of law enforcement or Social Services. The volunteers’ findings are given to the judge to help determine the outcome of the case. The Guardian ad Litem program, often confused with a Social Services program, is in fact a separate entity. The Guardian program is a nonprofit agency that receives funds from the state.
“We represent cases from the child’s point-of-view,” said Lissa Pence, Guardian ad Litem program supervisor.
The Guardian ad Litem volunteer sticks with the child until the case reaches a permanent resolution.
Guardians regularly meet with the child and with other agencies related to the case including Social Services. A court hearing is held every 90 days to review the case with a judge, attorneys and the parents.
Guardians inform the judge of their findings based on the expressed preferences of the child, “even if we don’t agree,” Pence said.
Guardian ad Litem volunteers receive 30 hours of training and a criminal background check. No special degree or outside training is required to become a guardian.
There are currently 40 volunteers with the Rowan County Guardian ad Litem program.
DA’s Office
The prosecutors take abuse cases very seriously, especially sex abuse cases, said District Attorney Brandy Cook.
“We want to do everything the law allows in order to aggressively prosecute sexual offenders,” she said.
These types of cases can be particularly challenging due to the unique nature of these offenses, Cook said.
“We have to weigh the potentially traumatic effect a child having to testify in court in front of their abuser will be. It can be extremely difficult for a child to testify in a room full of strangers about the intimate details of how they were molested or abused,” she said.
Another factor to consider, she said, is the opinion of the child’s parents on whether they agree that their child should testify and be subject to cross-examination by a defense attorney.
Additionally, it’s important to carefully “consider the strength of the case and the admissible evidence in the event that a child cannot or does not testify,” Cook said.
Can the laws ever be tough enough when a child has been sexually abused?
“Clearly, a tough penalty is warranted in cases where children have been sexually abused, raped or molested. In many cases involving sexual offenses against children, the only charge that can be punished more severely by law is first-degree murder,” she said.
Prevent Child Abuse
The nonprofit agency operates the local child advocacy center, the Terrie Hess House, which addresses the needs of child sexual assault victims and their non-offending family members.
Family Advocate Kristine Craig is the first person a family meets when they arrive at the center, located on Woodson Street.
She is with the family throughout the investigation and any subsequent court hearings.
“I like being part of the solution. It makes a huge difference that we are here,” Craig said.
Children receive a forensic exam done by a nurse who specializes in child abuse cases and it includes a physical by a local doctor. The forensic exam is recorded and observed by law enforcement to ensure children aren’t “revictimized” by having repeated statements and interviews by multiple investigators.
“I look at, what can I help them with that will get them through this?” Craig said.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.