MADISON (WKOW) -- Extreme cases of child abuse in southern Wisconsin have people asking how it can get that bad before someone steps in. But the answer to that question is complicated. 27 News takes an in-depth look at how child abuse cases are investigated.
In just the past couple of years, several cases have gotten significant media attention because children were either killed or seriously hurt, including the Madison teenager who was found by a passerby wandering the streets in her pajamas in the dead of winter. At 15, she weighed only 70 pounds and told the man who helped her she was being held in the basement by her family. Her father and stepmother have since been arrested on charges of child abuse. Her step-brother is accused of sexually assaulting her.
Child Protective Services, the agency that investigates claims of child abuse, had been out to the teenager's home multiple times since 1997, but never found enough evidence to take the girl out of the home until this year.
It's hard to say whether any of these cases could have been prevented. Dane County's Child Protective Services manager, Julie Ahnen, says in some cases, there aren't any warning signs. But when there are, an investigation usually begins with a phone call to police or CPS. CPS gets as much information as possible about things like injuries, living conditions, abuse the caller has witnessed and the family's name and address. A supervisor reviews that within 24 hours and based on the legal definitions of abuse and neglect, decides whether the family gets a visit. If not, the family's information is kept on file in case there's another call about abuse.
CPS and police have 60 days to do a preliminary interview with the family, and in most cases, they meet the deadline. Ahnen says most families don't try to hide from them; they want to resolve the issue.
Both police and CPS social workers are trained how to get the truth. In Dane County, they use a method called the "Cognitive Graphic Interview Technique." Ahnen says that decreases the chance an investigator will put words in the child's mouth and increases the chance they'll get truthful information from the child. The technique is about establishing a rapport with the child and asking questions that are non-leading. Ahnen says, "We've been doing that since 1999 and made a huge difference of credibility and amount of information we get."
Sometimes the investigation ends there with no evidence of abuse. If there is evidence, the child and family are brought to a place like Safe Harbor for a forensic interview done by someone else. Jennifer Ginsburg is a forensic interviewer and program manager at Safe Harbor in Madison. She says the interview they do is a "neutral, non-leading fact finding interview by trained specialists who understands child development and child trauma. And it's for the child to say in their own words, what's going on for them, what's happened."
Multiple agencies listen in on the child's interview, including police officers, child protective services, and the someone from the district attorney's office. They determine whether there should be criminal charges, a plan to get the child safe, or both.
The interview is recorded for future court hearings, sometimes saving the child from testifying publicly and from telling his story over and over. Ahnen says CPS continually looks at how to improve what they do. "Our safety intervention standards and initial assessment standards were created in about 2006-2007, well they were updated then, and are in the process of being updated again now."
But some question if the system works. Hanna Roth was physically abused by her father as a child and now runs the Rainbird Foundation in Madison, an organization aimed at ending child abuse. She thinks Child Protective Services can do better. "In a couple of cases, they've been very responsive. The problem is they are very inconsistent. So I had one little girl who was being severely abused in just about every way possible. CPS got in, police got in, the element got taken out, the mother and grandmother were re-educated... so there was a massive, beautiful combination of contributions that turned this child's life around, so yes, and I got to watch it over a period of three to four months. In another situation, I literally called up Child Protective Services, and they said, 'Is she bruised? Is she cut? Do you see any burns? Are there any broken bones.' When I said no to all four of these questions, the woman literally said to me, flippantly, 'Well this isn't' bad enough. Call us when it gets worse.'"
Roth has been fighting for children's rights and wants to see them legally protected just like any adult would be. "If I spank you, I'd go to jail for that because you have rights. but if I spank a child, that's called discipline and I could spank a child as hard as I spank you, but that's legal. People still live in a mindset where doing violence to children is legal."
Roth thinks Child Protective Services needs a system overhaul. "They need to have procedures in place so that every call is responded to. And I'll tell you right now cause I can hear it, I've heard it dozens and dozens of times, 'We are under-funded so we're understaffed. We can't provide that level of service.'"
But Ahnen says it's not funding or resources that are the problem. It's when families aren't honest with them or other people turn a blind eye. "Some of the cases, we have never received calls about. We might not get the right information, maybe because the child did not tell us what was going on for whatever reason. A lot of children won't disclose what's going on in their lives because they want to protect their parents or they're being threatened. Or parents won't tell us what's going on. So if we can't get evidence through all the channels we get evidence from, and we're not able to take action, sometimes we'll hear about that family again."
Ahnen says most times, the social workers who look into cases get it right the first time. "I think they make the right decision based on the information they got. Does it mean the caller had the big picture? Not necessarily. Sometimes we get multiple calls on one family and all those calls together give us the best picture."
Ahnen says although they've been busier in the last year, with 25 percent more calls about abuse ant 15 percent more investigations opened, she'd rather have someone call in if they suspect abuse than not call in at all. "I think our county has a good awareness of this issue and people take it seriously and I feel confident we'll get those needs met. Our workers are very busy, but they are excellent workers and have great support from their supervisors and are hanging in there and getting the work done."
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne says his office is hanging in there too, but they are "not adequately staffed" at this time. "We have to address these cases regardless of the bodies we have."
He says his office relies on "multi-disciplinary teaming," or working with other agencies like police and Child Protective Services to help children sooner. A Wisconsin law requires joint investigations for child sexual abuse cases, but not for physical abuse or neglect. Ozanne says his office is trying to do multi-disciplinary teaming more with physical abuse and neglect cases. "We can't do it all the time, but we are trying to get to a better place."
Amy Brown is a victim witness case manager for the Dane County District Attorney's office. She says different agencies have different information, so it's imperative to share it. "Hospitals have health information for the child, and police would have forensic information for example. When the law allows for information sharing, we can help children sooner."
Agencies say the best thing the general public can do to help children, is speak up. If you suspect child abuse, Ozanne says to call police. "Human services (CPS) can be strained by confidentiality and can't compel someone to do something, but police can."
Dane County also has a Child Abuse Reporting Line at (608) 261-5437. Here is what to look out for:
Signs of possible presence of Child Abuse and Neglect:
Sudden changes in behavior or appearance
Parents not following through with recommended medical treatment
Child is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
Child not properly supervised
Parent shows little concern for the child, ignores or denies any problems the child may be experiencing
Parent endorses harsh discipline with alternate caregivers
Parent views the child in extremely negative terms, blames the child for their problems
Parent has extremely unrealistic expectations for the child
Signs of Physical Abuse:
Unexplained injuries in places where children don't normally have injuries
Child reports being injured by a parent or caregiver
Child flinches at the approach of adults
Child expresses fear of harsh punishment
Signs of Neglect:
Begs or steals food or money
Consistently dirty and has severe body odor
Lacks sufficient clothing for the weather
Child abuses alcohol or drugs
Young child states that they are home alone
Signs of Sexual Abuse:
Has difficulty walking or sitting
Suddenly refuses to change for gym or participate in physical activities
Reports nightmares or bedwetting
Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated or unusual sexual knowledge or behaviors
Becomes pregnant or contract sexually transmitted disease, especially if under age 14
Parent limits child's contacts with others
Parent demonstrates jealousy or controlling behaviors
Signs of Emotional Abuse:
Child demonstrates extremes in behavior such as overly compliant or demanding, extreme passivity or aggression
Child has attempted suicide
Child is delayed in physical or emotional development
Child reports lack of attachment to parent
Parent constantly blames, belittles child
Parent is unconcerned abuse the child and refuses to seek help for child's problems
Parent overtly rejects the child
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