As of Sept. 1, Douglas County Child Protection Services had received 508 reports of possible child abuse in 2019. Of those, nearly half – 44 percent – had enough information/evidence to warrant an investigation.
In all of 2018, Douglas County Social Services received 808 reports, with 340 (42 percent) having enough information/evidence to warrant an investigation.
Child abuse, whether physical, emotional, sexual or neglect, is prevelent in this area and is the focus of this year’s annual Domestic Violence Awareness Month events hosted in part by Someplace Safe in Douglas County.
So, what exactly constitutes child abuse?
Sandy Olson with Douglas County Social Services said it occurs anytime a child is injured physically, sexually, emotionally or a child is neglected, meaning the child is not provided adequate basic needs – food, clothing, shelter.
Olson, a child protection supervisor, said the majority of child protection services cases involve neglect. She also mentioned other circumstances that could be considered child abuse, such as drinking and driving with a child in the vehicle, or a child living in circumstances deemed unfit, such as a filthy living enviroment that could cause illness, or even living in a house where the adults are hoarders.
In 2015, the state of Minnesota implemented guidelines all child protection workers are required to use to determine whether child abuse has occurred. The nearly two-inch-thick booklet is used by the Child Protection Screening Team in Douglas County to screen in or screen out the reports they receive, said Laurie Bonds, the county’s social services director.
When an advocate at Someplace Safe learns of possible child abuse, they report it to child protection services. All advocates are considered mandated reporters, said Someplace Safe Director Susan Keehn.
“If someone discloses something about child abuse, our role is to take the information and either report it to social services, or law enforcement if it’s after hours,” said Keehn. “It is not our job to investigate it. That’s for social services and law enforcement officers.”
People who come in regular contact with children, such as educators, medical professionals and many others, are mandated by the state to report any suspicion of child abuse. Mandated reporters can face consequences if child abuse was highly suspected and not reported, said Olson.
Keehn said she and the advocates at Someplace Safe will report any concerns they have and not second-guess their suspicions.
Some areas of child abuse are not always clear cut, however. When it comes to emotional harm, Keehn said it can sometimes get a little gray.
“If a parent calls a child lazy, it may not be child abuse,” she said. “But if that parent constantly says it and puts the child down, then yes, it can be. I will report it if I have any concerns. That is the whole reason we exist, to keep our children safe.”
Keehn said of the 138 children served through Someplace Safe in its last fiscal year, almost half – 48 percent – were age 12 or younger, with 52 percent between the ages of 13-17. About two-thirds were girls and one-third boys. About 20 percent were cases of child sexual abuse or assault by both family and non-family members, said Keehn.
Non-family members are those who have power differential, meaning they are people with authority whom kids trust, she said.
Every weekday morning, members of the Child Protection Screening Team meet and discuss all reported cases of possible child abuse. The information is logged into the computer and then the team, which is made up of supervisors, law enforcement investigators from the Alexandria Police Department and Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, and personnel from the Douglas County Attorney’s Office, sit down and discuss each report.
Using the state guidelines, they determine whether the case needs to be investigated.
If it does, then the case can take one of two tracks, said Olson. The first track means there are high level concerns, at which point child protection workers work with law enforcement investigators to interview the child and determine the next course of action. This could be to remove the child from the home. Olson said this is a last resort and used when conditions in the home are unsafe.
Only law enforcement can make the decision to remove the child and only a law enforcement officer can physically remove the child from the home, said Olson.
When children are removed, the goal of child protection services is to place them with other, more suitable family members. If no other family member is available, then the child would be placed in a foster home, she said.
“Our emphasis is on family first, because we believe kids do much better in the long run and it is less traumatic,” said Olson.
Bonds said the focus is always on reunification when a child is taken from a home, but in some cases it doesn’t work. More than 50% of children removed from a home are reunited with their parent or guardian, she said.
For the second track, which more than likely means an urgent response is not needed, a family assessment is conducted and courses of action are determined.
If there is not enough information to determine child abuse took place, there are still options for helping children and their families.
For families with children younger than 10, a parent and/or guardian can enroll in the Parent Support Outreach Program offered by Douglas County Social Services. The program offers assistance to families by providing positive support and preventative services.
“In all cases, the child’s immediate safety is taken into consideration,” said Bonds. “Child protection services is about the safety of children, not bad parenting.”
Olson added that the philosophy of child protection services is “Shift not Shatter.” She said they want to help parents make that shift where their children are living in a safe and loving environment versus shattering the lives of the families involved by removing the children.
In the next coming weeks, several events are planned for Domestic Violence Awareness Month:
13th annual Taking Steps Against Domestic Violence – Tuesday, Oct. 15, at 5 p.m. Walk begins at the Douglas County Courthouse and ends at Calvary Lutheran Church with a guest speaker and free food. Hosted by Someplace Safe and United Communities Advocating Non-Violence.
Community Driven Innovation: Creating a Responsive Family Court – Wednesday, Oct. 16, from 9-10 a.m., at the Douglas County Public Works office. Featuring Justice Anne McKeig of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Anyone, particularly those who work with people impacted by family court or within the court system, may attend this free event. Register in advance at ucan-justicemckeig.eventbrite.com or call 320-762-0663. Hosted by Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota, Someplace Safe and UCAN.
19th annual Domestic Abuse Awareness Luncheon – Wednesday, Oct. 16, from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Arrowwood Resort and Conference Center. Guest speaker will be Justice Anne McKeig from the Minnesota Supreme Court. Hosted by UCAN.
Day of Purple – Thursday, Oct. 24, all day. Join Someplace Safe to recognize those impacted by domestic violence. Participants are encouraged to wear purple and take photos, posting them on social media with the hashtag #dayofpurple19. Free Day of Purple stickers and posters available at firstname.lastname@example.org.