POLK COUNTY — He can be a mouthy kid.
Most of the time, his snotty remarks roll off his mother’s back. She gives him a stern look or a sharp rebuke.
Yet he keeps pushing and pushing — and he knows just what buttons to push to drive his mother to the edge. Plus, they’ve been quarantined together day after day for the better part of a year until they’ve become more like cellmates than a family.
One night, after spending 14 hours working a remote job while simultaneously being a mother and substitute teacher, he says the wrong thing with the wrong tone at the wrong time.
Suddenly, he’s airborne. His mother is lifting him by his shirt collar until he is two inches from her faces as she spits out a stream of obscenities. She doesn’t hit him. She lets the floor do that. She drops him and watches him continue to fall until he is flat on his back.
They both cry.
Scenarios like that play out over and over. The pandemic only exacerbates them. Russell Mark used to hear such stories with grim regularity. Now things are much more quiet. Too quiet.
Few people like to hear stories of children being abused and parents losing control, but the president and CEO of Juliette’s House in McMinnville wishes he heard a lot more of them. Mark’s organization fights child abuse by offering families and communities in Yamhill and Polk counties the resources to confront the problem.
The nonprofit usually handles approximately 250 cases of child abuse and neglect per year. The past 12 months have been ominously different. There have been fewer cases with fewer children in constant contact with teachers and others required by law to report signs of abuse.
“Our ongoing fear is that children are isolated, and teachers are a major source of referrals,” Mark said. “We’re afraid that once kids are back in the schools, we’ll see a tidal wave of disclosures.”
Mark doesn’t have statistics on how the pandemic affects child abuse — but that’s what worries him.
“The truth is reporting is so off right now,” he said. “When you’re isolated, people don’t have the opportunity to report the way they normally would. They’re trapped. They’re not really around safe adults. Even though kids are Zooming with the teachers, that’s such an artificial environment. Teachers don’t have a good idea of what’s happening with those children.”
All that will change when children return to school and generally start mingling with society again.
“Their friends and family are going to start asking questions,” Mark said. “Why are you bruised? Why are you anxious about talking about what happened at home? I think it’s going to be a real issue we have to face in our communities.”
Dallas, Monmouth, Independence and Falls City are particularly challenging communities for his organization, he added.
“We firmly believe we can get ahead of the tidal wave, but we don’t have the manpower yet — and I stress yet — to be in Polk County all the time,” he said.“Because we’re not in Polk County, we always have a challenge down there. We work closely with our sister organization, Liberty House, in Salem to do assessments. Their facilities are much larger than ours, and their capacity is larger as well.”
Nonetheless, Juliette’s House does provide resources in Polk County.
Interim Prevention Education Director Eli Cox has worked on Spanish-language workshops for adults in Falls City and Independence.
“We also work an awful lot with Grand Ronde,” Mark said. “We have a wonderful relationship with the leadership down there.”
Falls City schools offer programs such as Safe Kids as well as Building Foundations for Healthy Relationships with the help of Cox and Juliette’s House. Cox said the programs help people rethink the concept of consent.
“People tend to think of consent only in a sexual capacity,” he said. “Consent can be an everyday activity.”
While Juliette’s House services reach into Polk County, Cox said building relationships in the county takes time.
“Progress moves at the speed of trust,” he said,
Child-abuse prevention starts with parents, school bus drivers and teachers as well as children themselves, he added.
“That’s already happening in Polk County,” he said. “Our goal is to continue to build our relationships with communities so we can build on their existing prevention activities.”
The organization also provides workshops for businesses, Mark said.
“Business owners can proclaim their workplace is a safe place for kids,” he said. “It’s a wonderful way to promote business, and it sends a message to any predator who lives in your community that we will look for you, and we will find you.”
Preventing child abuse doesn’t just protect children, Mark said. Child abuse increases dropout rates, teenage pregnancy and criminal behavior.
“All those are extraordinarily costly to our community, especially in our rural communities where they don’t have the resources of larger metropolitan areas,” he said.
“We need to rethink how we deal with kids,” said Mark. “It’s not just a feel good, but there’s also community development reasons why we protect our children.”
Polk County has Sable House, a shelter for people experiencing domestic violence, but there is no local program expressly dedicated to confronting child abuse like Liberty House or Juliette’s House.
“The county’s volume is not high enough to sustain an organization,” Mark said.
However, he and the organization work closely with Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton and the county’s victims assistance program. “We have challenges with Polk County only because of distance,” Mark said. “We hope that’s changing.”
Many smaller Oregon communities face similar challenges. Mark chairs Oregon Child Abuse Solutions, a coalition of 20 centers across the state.
“Every county is facing different issues, but the commonality is that we’re all underfunded by the state, but we have a statewide mandate to care for these children,” he said.
In addition to providing public education, the staff at Juliette’s House provides forensic evaluations of children who authorities suspect have been abused. Evidence gathered by the organization’s investigators can help remove the threat of individual abusers, but Cox said education is the best remedy to removing the threat of abuse permanently.
“When people perpetuate bullying, sexual violence, child abuse or domestic violence they are seeking to feel power and control,” he said. “This power-over-others model will tear apart communities until the end of human time. An aspect of prevention education communities can undertake is identifying activities and practices that make people feel in control and powerful without harming or hurting others.”
The pandemic continues to hamper everything in society, Mark said, including prevention efforts and the work of Juliette’s House in general.
“I don’t know what the next several months hold for us,” he said. “At the same time, we want to get the message out that there are safe places. Overall, our message is that child abuse is preventable, and it takes a community to be educated and being willing to stand up and protect children. The good news is we’re here.”
More information on Juliette’s House is available at julietteshouse.org or by calling 503-435-1550.