Here are key takeaways from KET’s special report on child abuse and neglect in Kentucky. Host Renee Shaw and her guests examine policies to address the state’s high rate of maltreatment of children. The program also includes interviews with persons whose lives have been affected by physical and sexual abuse as well as neglect.
This KET special report is produced with support from Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.
Neglect Makes Up the Majority of Reported Cases
For several years, Kentucky had the highest rate of child maltreatment in the United States, according to data from the federal Department for Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau. However, reported cases of abuse and neglect in the commonwealth have declined over the past two years, and Kentucky’s ranking dropped to fifth in 2020 and sixth in 2021.
“Moving from number 5 to number 6 is not necessarily something to celebrate,” says Eric Friedlander, secretary for Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services. “We’re on the right direction, but there’s still way too much abuse and neglect.”
According to Friedlander, the severity of maltreatment in specific cases has increased even though overall case numbers are down in this COVID-19 time frame. “We’re just seeing children who come through our system... children who are going into classrooms with bigger issues,” he says.
While instances of physical and/or sexual abuse may receive more media attention, neglect comprises the majority of reported cases – 88 percent in 2021, according to the federal Child Maltreatment Report. The criteria for neglect addresses a failure to meet a child’s basic needs, which include food, shelter, medical care, and proper supervision.
Friedlander says it’s important for state Child Protective Services (CPS) workers to be trained to notice signs of neglect and to discern whether a child’s lack of food or other necessities is caused by actual neglect or the result of a family in poverty. “If the child is in danger without the proper parental attention, then that is what we call neglect,” he explains.
Substance abuse and domestic violence among caregivers are the leading risk factors for abuse and neglect. In an interview with KET, Mandy Colwell shares her story of redemption after breaking the cycle of addiction and regaining custody of her three sons.
“If we just have somebody there for us to back us up, and know that we’re worth it, and believe in us, it makes a world of difference,” Colwell says, reflecting on how a strong support system helped her reunite with her sons after a two-year separation. “For me, it was church and the community that came with church. They got behind us and realized that we were worth investing in.”
Our Youngest and Most Vulnerable Are at the Highest Risk for Abuse
Infants under the age of 1 experience abuse and neglect at a significantly higher rate than any other age group, according to statistics from the Child Maltreatment Report, and also have the highest death rate from acts of abuse. The most common cause of death is abusive head trauma, commonly known as shaken baby syndrome. This violent act arises when an adult responsible for an infant’s care loses self-control and grips and shakes the infant in an attempt to halt a certain behavior.
Shaken baby syndrome causes brain bleeding detectible by a CT scan, says Dr. Melissa Currie, who specializes in child abuse pediatrics at Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville. Other warning signs physicians look for include altered mental status, seizures, breathing problems, and vomiting.
Some infants who have shaken baby syndrome may not show signs of bruising, but Currie says those that do have bruises need to be thoroughly examined. “Bruising in babies is never normal,” she says. “Until babies are taking steps and holding onto furniture, they really don’t earn bruises.”
For toddlers, Currie explains the TEN-4 screening rule for bruising, which stands for torso, ears, and neck. “Any bruising to the torso, ears, or neck in a child under 4 years or age – or any bruising anywhere in a child 4 months of age or younger – is high risk and needs to be further evaluated,” she says, adding that any bruising on a the left side of a child’s face in a stripe-like pattern is another warning sign. These could result from repeated slaps by an adult, most commonly coming from the right hand.
In an interview with KET, Liz Renner describes how her infant son, Colton, survived repeated instances of shaken baby syndrome perpetrated by a child care worker. She also discusses the challenges that lie ahead for Colton due to that life-altering abuse.
“In my head, I had painted this picture of an easy parenthood, and it’s not going to be so easy anymore,” says Renner, who lives in Richmond.
Now age 7, Colton is a happy, well-adjusted child but he has permanent disabilities caused by the abuse. Renner is committed to educating others about the dangers of shaken baby syndrome and how caregivers can regulate their own behavior when an infant cries or is unruly.
“The biggest thing I would want families to take away is advocate for your child if you feel in your gut if something isn’t right,” she says. “It’s OK to have open, honest conversations (and say), ‘Hey, if you’re feeling upset, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s OK to set my child down in a safe space and go get a drink of water. As long as my child is safe, it’s OK to take care of yourself, because if we’re not caring for ourselves, our kids aren’t going to be cared for.’”
Steps to Identify Cases of Sexual Abuse
About one in four girls and one in 13 boys in the U.S. will be sexually abused before the age of 18, based on data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, about 90 percent of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abuser.
In an interview with KET, Laken Albrink, a professor of legal studies at Morehead State University, recounts enduring sexual abuse from her stepfather. Looking back on the years of abuse, which began during early adolescence and continued through her high school years, Albrink realized how her stepfather manipulated her emotions by telling her how mature she was for her age and how he was helping her become sexually experienced.
“I was in college at the time I came forward,” says Albrink, who reported her stepdad to the police and testified against him at trial, where he was convicted and sentenced. “That’s where I first encountered the definition of grooming, and I just remember the moment of that, putting a word to what happened to me (and) feeling so powerful – it started to make sense. Instead of a dad loving a kid, it was a perpetrator grooming a victim.”
Grooming techniques commonly used by sexual abuse offenders include giving a child special attention over others, isolating them, taking them on special outings, giving them presents, asking them to fill roles within the family that are not normal for children, and treating the child as if he/she is older. Once the abuse starts, offenders usually intimidate children by blaming them or threatening them in order to maintain the harmful relationship and keep it secret.
“What I really talk to parents about is that perpetrators try to build a profile of (a particular) child,” says Sonja Grey, executive director of Exploited Children’s Help Organization (ECHO). “They look for children that may be in vulnerable situations, that may be in isolated situations, or have low self-esteem… The biggest thing for a perpetrator is to gain the trust of the child.”
Grey says the ubiquity of digital media in the 21st century adds another level of risk for children. She reports that approximately 43 percent of kids have been approached by a stranger online.
“One of the things that we really encourage parents to do is to have an open conversation about digital safety,” Grey says. Children who have started an online relationship with an abuser may begin to isolate, develop mood swings, and possibly practice self-harm.
“If a child immediately doesn’t want to be on social media anymore, if they’re turning their devices over to hide something they don’t want you to see – these are warning signs,” she adds.
If a child reveals an abusive relationship to you, report it to Kentucky’s Sexual Abuse Hotline at 1-877-597-2331. If you are a victim of sexual abuse, call the National Sexual Abuse Hotline for support at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
A Multilayered Approach to End Child Abuse and Neglect
In a panel discussion moderated by Renee Shaw, Janna Estep Jordan, director of operations and prevention education at Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky, says that her organization is dedicated to teaching all Kentuckians about their responsibility to report cases of child abuse or neglect. The state has a mandatory reporting law that applies to everyone, not just parents and educators. “True prevention of child abuse happens when every one of us understands our role,” she says.
For April’s Child Abuse Prevention Month, Jordan says her organization will launch a campaign called Lean On Me Kentucky. “It will encourage you to take a step back and look at the individuals and groups you have access to and reach out and make sure they have somebody to lean on,” she says.
This outreach can take on many forms, Jordan says. Persons can provide a listening ear to those who may have concerns about a possible abusive relationship and want to talk about it, or they can share resources about abuse and neglect on social media to help spread the word about prevention. “The idea behind it is, lean on your neighbor, lean on your friend,” she says.
Pam Darnall, president and CEO of Family & Children’s Place in Louisville, says her organization is one of 15 Children’s Advocacy Centers around the state that provide essential services to youth who have suffered from abuse and/or neglect. These centers offer counseling and work with families and schools to help children recover from traumatic incidents or relationships.
“Another one of the things that it’s really important to know is that Kentucky has one of the best prevention services,” Darnall says. “It’s called HANDS, because every parent can use a helping hand.”
HANDS is a voluntary home visitation program designed to help parents – and first-time parents in particular – navigate the stressful moments of bringing a child into existence. The goal is to create a healthy, nurturing bond between parent and child, which will then reduce the risk of abuse.
Darnall says one of her organization’s goals is to solicit more government funding for Children’s Advocacy Centers and other nonprofits, including higher reimbursement rates from Medicaid. Those advocacy efforts have worked: Darnall notes that in the 2022 General Assembly, legislation sponsored by Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville) increased dollars directed to Family & Children’s Place and other organizations as part of a larger reform of the state’s child welfare system.
Senate Bill 8 was signed into law by Gov. Andy Beshear. One important provision of the bill changed the definition of neglect to remove penalties for families living in poverty, Jordan says. Other reforms include allowing CPS workers to intervene earlier in cases of abuse and neglect, increasing penalties for abusers, and providing more wraparound services to support families in need.
Jay Miller, Dean of the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, experienced neglect as a child due to his father’s substance abuse and the early death of his mother. Miller grew up in several homes and spent time with relatives, and as he grew older his experiences formed a resolve to help other children and families in crisis.
Although the 2022 General Assembly approved pay raises for the state’s social workers, Miller says more investments in and supports for these essential public servants is needed. He says it’s also time to reframe how the public thinks about child welfare in order to attract committed, passionate people to the profession.
“If you think about becoming a child welfare worker or a CPS worker and look at the news or Google it, it’s all bad – there’s nothing that makes you want to run towards that work,” Miller says. “I think for all of us, we have to understand that CPS workers, every single day, are saving lives.
“We have to get to a space where we honor and celebrate that work for what it is,” he continues. “In other professional spaces – nurses, doctors and so forth – we often talk about them saving lives. Well, there’s a CPS worker somewhere now investigating a case and making a decision in an impossible space, and that decision is going to save a child.”
If you suspect abuse or neglect of a child in Kentucky, you are required by law to report it. The state’s toll-free Child Abuse Hotline number is 1-877-KY-SAFE1 (1-877-597-2331).