Child Abuse & Neglect Trending Upward
by Scott Richter and Dr. Patrick Jones
The Spokane Trends website offers indicators showing the good, bad, and ugly of who we are as a community. But what all indicators have in common is they tell a story. “Bad” things can receive a lot of attention, but this is due to their impact on society. It’s why we hear about thefts, murders, and assaults more than we do about a neighbor helping a neighbor dig their car out of the snow, or someone donating $100 to a local charity. It’s the attention applied to the wrongs in our society that help people to create road maps to change. Good and reliable data helps us to draw those maps.
The Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), the State’s youngest agency, was “created to be a comprehensive agency exclusively dedicated to the social, emotional and physical well-being of children, youth and families — an agency that prioritizes early learning, prevention and early intervention at critical points along the age continuum from birth through adolescence.”
The DCYF oversees a variety of child-focused programs and services previously scattered across many different agencies. For example, all Children’s Administration programs previously under the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and all Department of Early Learning services are now under the DCYF umbrella. Beginning Scheduled to go into effect in July, 2019, juvenile criminal justice programs, such as the Juvenile Rehabilitation program and the Office of Juvenile Justice, will be moved underneath the DCYF umbrella.
Looking at the Victims of Child Abuse and Neglect in Accepted Referrals indicator on the Trends website, we see the general trend line has been upward. From 2000 to 2017 in Spokane County, the number of children listed in reports of child abuse or neglect in accepted referrals for investigation increased from 4,074 to 6,564, or by 61%.
The rate of victims in Spokane County has been consistently higher than the state benchmark. During 2000 the rate of victims listed in accepted referrals for investigation per 1,000 youth in Spokane County was 37.9 compared to 40.6 in the state. By 2017, the abuse and neglect rate in Spokane County was had grown to 57.7 while the state decreased to 37.8.
So what does it mean to be a victim of child abuse or neglect in an accepted referral for investigation? First, let’s look at the legal definition of child abuse and neglect in Washington State. According to RCW 26.44.020:
- abuse and neglect generally “means sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, or injury of a child by any person under circumstances which cause harm to the child’s health, welfare, or safety”.
- negligent treatment or maltreatment is defined as “an act or a failure to act, or the cumulative effects of a pattern of conduct, behavior, or inaction, that evidences a serious disregard of consequences of such magnitude as to constitute a clear and present danger to a child’s health, welfare, or safety”.
When someone suspects a child is being abused or neglected and files an official report with the DCYF, each report is examined by appropriate DCYF staff. The DCYF assesses each report to see if the minimum legal threshold of child abuse or neglect has been met. Any initial assessment meeting minimum thresholds are “screened in” and referred for further investigation.
When a referral is accepted for investigation, at this point, the number of children listed as potential victims in the original referral (based on the number of children listed in the initial report) are represented in this indicator – regardless of the outcome of the investigation.
This indicator does not represent the outcome of an investigation, nor does it delineate between victims of abuse and neglect.
Rob Larson, Deputy Regional Administration – Region 1 with the DCYF said investigations of neglect are generally carried out by the Family Assessment Response (FAR) Pathway, which in Washington State is part of Child Protective Services (CPS). According to the DCYF, “FAR focuses on child safety along with the integrity and preservation of the family when lower risk allegations of child maltreatment have been screened in for intervention.”
Larson said investigations of abuse are generally conducted by CPS Investigative Pathway with outcomes based on a “preponderance of the evidence” that abuse “more likely than not” occurred. This is a lower standard than the typical “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden of proof required in most criminal procedures.
However, when a report is “screened in” for abuse, CPS will forward the report to law enforcement who are required by law to conduct an independent and simultaneous investigation for criminal conduct. Unlike the CPS investigation resulting in the accusation of abuse being “founded” or “unfounded” using a “preponderance of the evidence”, the law enforcement investigation can result in a referral for criminal prosecution, which would then be held to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.
While lower numbers are obviously preferred in this indicator, a few final explanations help describe the graph.
- A child is counted as many times as they are listed in an accepted referral in the same year.
- These numbers do not include children living in the same home if they are not listed in the referral.
- These numbers are not adjusted to reflect the results of an investigation that were “unfounded”.
- Locations are based on the location of the residence at the time of the referral.
While these caveats are offered only to help explain this indicator, they are not intended to soften the implications and consequences of child abuse and neglect. Mandatory reporters (people required by law to report all incidents of suspected abuse and neglect, such as teachers, doctors, and counselors) usually comprise about 75% of all initial reports of child abuse and neglect, the remaining 25% come from friends, family, neighbors, other, and unknown sources.
More information on how to report child abuse and neglect, can be found here.
A special “thank you” is owed to Debra Johnson, Director of Communications with the DCYF.