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Child abuse reports decline in summer, but the abuse doesn't

June 4, 2008 · 

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by Chloe Wiley

http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=92733

Johnny comes to school consistently dirty, avoids eye-contact and has unexplained bruises.

These are common signs of child abuse and neglect that teachers and other caregivers, such as social workers, are trained to notice and required by federal law to report.

But during the summer children lose contact with these professionals. This is one explanation why the number of abuse reports decrease in June and July and then rise back up in the fall, advocates say.

“We definitely see a drop in our numbers because children are not around as many mandated reporters,” said Ben Tanzer, a spokesman for Prevent Child Abuse America, a national advocacy group based in Chicago.

Seventy percent of child abuse reports are made by mandated reporters, with nearly one-third coming from teachers, school personnel and social services, according to DCFS child abuse and neglect statistics.

Which means community members may have to play a bigger role, advocates say, in preventing and reporting child abuse during the summer months.

But some may be hesitant to report suspicions, said Kendall Marlowe, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

“They don’t want to intervene in the life of a friend or neighbor,” Marlowe said. “It is a heavy responsibility and a hard thing to do, I know I had to do it once myself.”

Child abuse suspicions can be reported 24 hours a day to the DCFS child abuse hotline, (800) 25-ABUSE. Trained staff members answer all hotline calls and assess the level of abuse or neglect, Marlowe said. An investigation follows, if necessary.

“When in doubt, call,” Marlowe said. “No one is expected to be an expert.”

Some advocates disagree with this motto and say hotline calls are better left to professionals who have a greater understanding of abuse conditions.

“For families trying to do their best despite other challenges, an unmerited investigation is the last thing they need,” said Diane Redleaf, executive director of the Family Defense Center, a legal advocacy group for families threatened with losing their children to foster care.

Even DCFS acknowledges that most reports don’t result in findings of abuse, Redleaf said. More than two-thirds of the allegation investigations found no conditions of abuse or neglect, she said, adding that a false or misguided hotline call can tear a family apart.

“It’s probably one of the biggest nightmares anyone can ever go through,” Redleaf said.

She described a recent center case involving local college professors who were accused of child abuse by their neighbors. Despite being cleared within a week, the case had a destructive effect for the entire family, leading them to relocate, Redleaf said.

Community members should not rush to call the hotline if they have doubts or questions, she said.

“Save calls for serious abuse cases — not just suspicions.”

DCFS disagrees.

“While only mandated reporters are required by law to call, we all have a moral duty to protect children,” said Marlowe.

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