Combatting child abuse and neglect

BARAGA – People suspecting a child has been abused or neglected have avenues they can take.

In Michigan, anyone who suspects child abuse can make a report to the Department of Human Services by calling 855-444-3911.

There are numerous potential indicators, both physical and behavioral, of abuse and neglect. For instance, a physically abused child might have unexplained burns and bruises, bald spots or puncture wounds. And they might become more skittish, self-destructive or wear weather-inappropriate clothing in warm temperatures to cover their body.

Janet Holmstrom, program manager with the Department of Human Services in Baraga, Houghton and Keweenaw counties, said several factors can lead to child abuse. One is economic stress, which can push parents’ tempers closer to the edge. Another is generational, in which parents carry on bad practices they were subject to in their own childhoods.

“We try to go in and put in parenting classes, and homemaker parent aid services to help them parent more correctly so they’re not abusing or neglecting their child,” Holmstrom said.

Drug abuse isn’t as much of a predictor for physical abuse, but there’s a strong correlation with neglect, Holmstrom said.

Once Child Protective Services investigates a complaint, it will place the case in one of five categories, ranging from V (cases where the family can’t be located, no evidence of abuse/neglect is found or the court declines to issue an order requiring family cooperation) to I (where there is a preponderance of evidence to suggest abuse).

In 2012, the most recent year for which there is data, there were 103 cases of abuse and/or neglect in Houghton County, 24 in Baraga County, 18 in Ontonagon County and five in Keweenaw County.

Only about 28 percent of the investigations are determined to be unsubstantiated, Holmstrom said. If DHS sees a concern, it will refer the matter to community agencies that may be able to help.

DHS previously put more of an emphasis on prevention, which Holmstrom said is making a comeback. It’s welcome news to Holmstrom, who said it’s money better spent.

“If someone’s got a dirty house, we’d be able to buy them a vacuum cleaner,” she said. “If we don’t have a case of any sort, then we won’t be able to buy somebody a vacuum cleaner, but if we have an open prevention case we can pick them up a vacuum cleaner or cleaning supplies. It’s kind of nice, to be able to help somebody concretely.”

In the three years she’s been in Baraga, Houghton and Keweenaw counties, abuse has decreased a small amount, Holmstrom said.

During the calendar year, abuse reports are cyclical. Summer, where children have fewer encounters with mandated reporters such as teachers, is quieter. The number goes back up when children return in the fall, Holmstrom said.

“Last year, in Houghton County, we were averaging one investigation a day,” she said. “This year, it’s kind of slacked off – we’ve gone down to around 15 to 18 a month.”

Recently, Gov. Rick Snyder signed the Safe Sleep law, in which parents of newborns must watch a DVD on safe sleeping for infants before they are discharged. About 240 children die each year in the state from those situations, Holmstrom said.

A bright spot is the lack of fatalities last year among children wearing car seats.

Counties also participate in Child Death Review Teams, in which the DHS reviews child deaths in the area. The cases don’t have to be affiliated with Child Protective Services; recent examples include a case where a child pushed out a screen in their window and fell out. The Baraga-Houghton-Keweenaw team has discussed potential remedies, such as safety grates that can be put on windows.

“The main focus of the Child Death Review Team is to look at those types of cases and determine if there’s any preventive measures the local community can take,” Holmstrom said.