In courts on both sides of the state line, judges and social workers are facing a grim puzzle: What’s behind a spike in the number of child abuse and neglect cases?
While researchers look for a cause — possibly in the weak economy — more and more dysfunctional families in Johnson and Jackson counties are landing in court. There, judges decide whether children stay with their parents, move to temporary foster care or are adopted by new families.
From 2007 through last year, new cases of child abuse and neglect rose from 365 to 561 in Johnson County and from 859 to 970 in Jackson County.
Johnson County in July had to assign a second judge to the docket that handles those cases. The county has to send children to foster homes in Wichita and farther out, said Judge Kathleen Sloan, who has handled the cases for years.
And on both sides of the state line, foster families and the CASA volunteers who represent the interests of children in court are in short supply.
The spike will be felt far into the future because abused children are more likely than others to become criminals, said Mary Marquez, chief juvenile officer for Jackson County Family Court.
“Are we going to see an increase in violent crime in a few years because of this? I think it is a possibility,” she said.
Nationwide, the frequency of substantiated abuse and neglect has declined almost steadily since the 1990s except for some spikes in neglect cases during past recessions, according to federal data submitted by state child care workers.
Experts can’t explain the local spike in the context of the national trend, but there are plenty of ideas about what could cause the increase — some of them contradictory.
Molly Merrigan, who has long presided over child abuse and neglect cases in Jackson County, points to the length of the recession: “It’s a cumulative thing — at the beginning of a recession, only a few people have lost jobs, and they have hope.”
As things get worse and unemployment benefits run out, people take out their anger on their children, she said. A family’s spiraling bad luck can leave grandparents or other relatives without the resources to take children in.
Katherine Sell, a research associate at PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, noted that a study of hospital emergency room reports did find an increase in shaken baby abuse cases during the most recent recession. Muddling the matter, though, a study she conducted in 2010 found no link between physical abuse and economic downturns, although it left much unclear.
“There is no shortage of complexity in this; it is so much about the community you are in,” Sell said.
Some communities might be dodging the ugly spikes because they have long been accustomed to dealing with poverty.
Wyandotte County Judge Daniel Cahill said the number of cases involving children in need of care there did not increase much from 2007 to 2010. Figures are not in yet for 2011.
“Our community was no stranger to high unemployment and thinly stretched resources even before the economic downturn,” Cahill said.
Whatever the cause, the rise in child abuse and neglect cases in Johnson and Jackson counties has created a need for more CASA volunteers, who play a huge role in children’s futures as advocates for them in court.
“It takes a few hours a month,” said Lois Rice, director of CASA of Johnson & Wyandotte Counties, “to have a large impact on the life of a child.”