While April, which is child abuse prevention month, has come to a close, reports of abuse and neglect of the Region's children continue to dip, but officials said too many children are still suffering in silence.
Members of the multi-faceted Lake County Child Death Review Team are working to partner with the public in preventing the tragedies they come face-to-face with on a monthly basis.
The Lake County Child Death Review Team reviews all deaths that occur for those 18 and younger in Lake County. The group consists of professionals from the fields of law enforcement, mental health, juvenile courts and the Lake County coroner’s office, said Michelle Jatkiewicz, Lake County deputy prosecutor and chairwoman for the review team.
Jatkiewicz said because of the isolation brought on by the pandemic, 2020 and 2021 has seen a dip in people reporting child abuse and neglect — however, that doesn't mean the child's suffering ceases to exist, it just goes unheard.
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According to the Indiana Department of Child Services, there were 178,772 calls that were handled during 2020, with an average of 599 calls each day statewide.
These numbers are low compared to past data, which shows that in 2019 there were a total of 242,482 calls handled that year and an average of 698 calls per day. Previous years are also on par with 2019’s numbers, with 2018 having a reported 242,994 calls and an average of 703 calls per day.
The death review team members said that in the absence of those who normally see children on a daily basis, such as teachers, coaches, school counselors, school nurses, and caregivers, less things are being reported with the suspension of in-person learning and other services. This is where the groups says the "it takes a village" mentality could save lives.
Jatkiewicz said after working with a recent tragic case involving the death of a child, the group has come together to find solutions that could potentially save others from the same fate.
“Sometimes there’s a particular death that strikes you,” Jatkiewicz said. “I can’t talk about that particular case because it’s pending in criminal courts, but that’s the case that spurred us all into action on what we can do to have more focus put on children and making sure they’re safe, especially with COVID. When children were not going to normal places where people can see them and perhaps report an issue such as the schools, where teachers know them and can see if something is going on. …Children were stuck in the home with abusers in some cases and there was no one looking in on them. From that point, we got together and have started to work together in bringing understanding to the community on reporting things they see.”
Erica Rios, a police social worker with the Griffith Police Department, said on the law enforcement side, they have seen instances where the signs of abuse and neglect were there, but by the time police became involved it was too late to save the child from harm’s way.
“For us in the things we see, you hear a lot of investigative pieces saying that neighbors knew, teachers knew, family members knew, church members knew but no one really knew who to call,” Rios said. “So it’s important that people need to know child services exists and that their only job is not to remove take your kids away or take away your rights. They can be preventative.”
Individuals can call the Indiana Department of Child Services hotline at 1-800-800-5556, which is available 24 hours a day.
“A big part of this is awareness,” Rios said. “For the regular citizen who isn’t a teacher, police officer or attorney, I think its important for people to understand there are people to call when they suspect something happening that doesn’t seem quite right with a kid. Whether its bruising or behaviors that don’t seem normal. I think we can all recognize when things don’t seem right but you cant really verbalize it and it wouldn’t maybe meet that requirement of say calling 911.”
Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter said the courts see a plethora of child abuse and neglect cases that have tragic outcomes. Though there’s no way to go back in time, he said he hopes they can use those experiences to prevent future deaths.
“That’s what I look at, as one of biggest factors,” Carter said. “It’s an intervention in a current child’s life of what’s happening to them today, but it’s based off a past experience that we lost someone because of this and maybe we can prevent it from happening again.”
Griffith Chief Greg Mance said Indiana is a mandatory reporting state, which means that anyone who suspects abuse or neglect must make a report by law.
“We’ve all seen it repeatedly happen, when cases brought to prosecution neighbors will say, ‘I noticed their clothes didn’t fit well or they’d come over and ask for food once and a while,’” Mance said. “These are early indicators that help is need. There’s systems in place to help families so that level of frustration doesn’t boil up. There’s just so many examples and we read them every month. One of the easiest pieces we can fill is educating the public of their duty to get involved. And their involvement is very minute. All they have to do is call that number and they can remain anonymous. They just need to engage the systems that are in place, and the systems are working better now than ever in working together to address key issues. But the key element is always going to be the public’s help. People need to be involved and take responsibility.”
Rehana Adat-Lopez, director of the Lake County Court Appointed Special Advocate program, said that there is a stigma that prevents people from asking for help or reporting things. She said DCS and other child services are misconstrued as existing only to break up families, when in reality they offer resources in keeping families together.
“I think one of things people don’t understand is that we are not a punitive system in the juvenile court,” Adat-Lopez said. “The juvenile court is not there to punish parents or punish the family, we are there to provide services and efforts to keep children in home and help families with what they need and provide resources. I think people don’t understand that and there’s a stigma that comes with it.”
Local resources such as the Geminus Community Partners can be reached at 219-757-1800 and can provide financial help, childcare, counseling and other assistance.
Adat-Lopez said one way people can take an active approach to helping local children is to volunteer with CASA. Volunteers act as advocates for children who are involved in child abuse or neglect cases.
“Numbers are high, there are over 1,000 kids in the system,” Adat-Lopez said. “And we need an advocate for each one.”
She urged anyone interested in learning more to call 219-738-CASA.