By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer
One of the hardest tasks Sherel Whited faces as a social worker is making decisions she knows will change the lives of the parents and children.
A social worker supervisor for the Children, Youth and Families Department in Curry County, it’s Whited’s job to initiate steps toward removing a child from a potentially abusive situation by getting police and court agents involved.
Over the past few years, reported sexual and physical abuse cases locally, statewide and nationally have steadily climbed, according to agency reports. Figures provided by the Oasis Children’s Advocacy Center show that reported cases of sexual or physical abuse in Curry, Roosevelt, De Baca and Quay counties increased by 35 percent this past fiscal year, which ended the last day of June.
“It’s a lot of pressure to know a decision you make affects a lot of people,” Whited said. “I continue to be shocked about the things that happen to children.”
One of the difficulties of deciding the fate of a child is weighing how much damage is being done against the trauma of separating them from a family member or guardian.
If a social worker determines a child needs to be removed from a situation, the worker contacts the police or the courts to make them aware of the abuse, and they, in turn, can grant custody to child protective services.
Whited said seeing formerly abused children make strides helps her bear the weight of the difficult decisions she has to make.
“It’s kind of neat when you see a child that’s had a pretty tough beginning find permanence with a loving adoptive family,” she said.
Of the four counties Oasis tracks, Curry County showed the largest increase in the number of abuse cases reported and percentage increase over the past year.
Overall, Oasis investigated 225 reports of physical and sexual abuse in the 2003/2004 fiscal year, up from 148 the previous year.
Oasis reports in Curry County increased from 86 cases to 136 cases during the same one-year period, an increase of over 58 percent.
By comparison, Roosevelt County’s abuse reports went up from 21 to 33 cases in the same period.
The number of reported cases in New Mexico during the last three years is also up, said Matt Dillman, director of communications for the Children, Youth and Families Department.
Statewide, reported cases have risen from 23,961 in 2001 to 27,525 in 2003.
But over the same period, the number of substantiated cases decreased slightly, from 4,604 in 2001 to 4,254 in 2003.
The figures show more people are reporting abuse, but less of the reports are validated.
In Curry County, 132 cases were substantiated in 2001 and 159 cases were substantiated in 2002 and 2003, figures that include those from Oasis and other reporting agencies, according to Dillman.
More often the victims are being assaulted by acquaintances their own age, said Hank Baskett, coordinator for Oasis.
Reported perpetrators under 18 years old increased 176 percent, up to 47 in the 2003/2004 period from 17 in the 2002/2003 period. In the age group between 18 and 30 there was a 127-percent increase over the same period.
“We’re getting a lot of children on children,” Baskett said. “Other safe houses are seeing this, too.”
It is unclear whether the statewide increase of reported abuse cases represents a climb in criminal activity, or if overall awareness and education on abuse is responsible.
Dillman said it will remain clear until there is an extensive study of the trends.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports on its Web site that research indicates mandatory reporting laws may result in the over-reporting of suspected child maltreatment.
CYFD recently made a new tool available to educators, medical professionals, law enforcement officials, judges and social workers to enable them to report possible abuses via the Internet at www.cyfd.org. The online reporting will allow professionals to report a potential abuse when the circumstances make it difficult to call the hotline.
“Really, we wanted to give people an extra tool,” Dillman said. “We want to make it as easy as possible for people to report.”
New Mexico’s mandatory reporting law states that every person, including professionals, law enforcement officers and medical doctors, must report any abuse on a child to the appropriate agency or they will be liable to a misdemeanor offense themselves.
Oasis is a member of the New Mexico Children’s Safe House network, a group of several safe houses throughout state.