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Child Abuse Awareness

Citizens who suspect are urged to take that first step and call

POLK COUNTY -- April is National Child Abuse Awareness month, signified by a dark blue ribbon.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Each day in the United States, four children die as a result of child abuse in the home."

The most common type of abuse is neglect. Sixty-one percent of abused children were neglected, while 19 percent suffered physical abuse and 10 percent suffered sexual abuse, the agency reports.

Most of the affected children suffered more than one type of abuse. Almost half of the cases are related to substance abuse by the caretakers. This is especially true in areas where methamphetamine is prevalent.

Social services and law enforcement agencies are using awareness month to educate the public about what to look for, and how to react when it appears a child is being abused.

The first thing to do if a child says he or she has been touched inappropriately or is being mistreated is to remain calm. Becoming hysterical or angry will only upset the child, who may misunderstand and think you, too, are angry with them.

Don't display shock, and don't say anything against the child's parents or the suspected abuser. Simply tell the child that you believe them and that you are going to tell someone who can help.

If it's possible, get the names and addresses of the child and the child's parents, as well as the type and extent of the abuse.

If the child tells you freely how long the abuse has been going on and who the abuser is, make notes and pass as much information as possible onto the investigating agency. But don't push the child for information.

According to experts at Liberty House (a child abuse treatment facility in Salem), it is important to not make the child repeat the story too many times. Asking young children too many questions may make them think they aren't answering correctly. This could lead them to change their answers.

It's OK for the questioner to ask "What do you mean?" as a way to clarify what the child is saying -- but ask only enough questions to get a clear sense of what is really going on.

If you have clarified the child's statement and you still feel alarmed, it is time to call and make a report to child services.

Do not confront the suspected abuser directly, experts warn. Leave that to law enforcement. It is appropriate, however, to keep a closer eye on the suspected abuser and make sure other children aren't left alone with him or her.

What if you are wrong, and there was no abuse?

Worst case scenario: It was a misunderstanding on your part that will be clarified in the initial investigation.

Best case scenario: You have saved a child from ongoing abuse.

In Oregon, a reporter of suspected abuse is protected -- his or her identity is confidential unless it is necessary to testify in open court.

However, only people with first-hand knowledge of the child's situation can provide testimony in an abuse trial.

Under Oregon law, if a person makes a report in good faith, even if the claim is proved to be incorrect, that person cannot be persecuted in any way.

Once a report is made, a caseworker is sent to assess the family situation. It is the caseworker's job to conduct a more thorough interview of the child and determine if abuse has occurred.

A child deemed at risk for further harm is removed from the situation, or the suspected abuser is removed.

Once the risk factors, strengths and needs of the child and family are assessed, a safety plan and a plan for service are created.

A case is closed only when protective services are no longer needed to keep the child safe.

To report suspected abuse: Polk County Child Services at 503-623-8118 ext. 266, or the Oregon Child Abuse Hotline at 503-378-6704. Visit the www.itemizerobserver.com for links to website on child abuse prevention.

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