Greene County has a rate of 2,223.9 child abuse and neglect cases per 100,000 people. Compare that to Jackson County, the main county in the Kansas City area with a rate of 1,694.8 and St. Louis County with a rate of 761.3, both per 100,000 people.
"Child abuse is defined by the State of Missouri as “any physical injury, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse inflicted on a child other than by accidental means by those responsible for the child’s care, custody and control,” says Lisa Altis, a Greene County Deputy Juvenile Officer.
According to the Missouri Department of Social Services for the 2004 fiscal year Green County reported 5,346 total child abuse and neglect cases.
“I believe we have more reported cases because we have an ultra-aware community,” says Shelly Frevert, a case manager for The Child Advocacy Center. Altis agrees.
Dr. Frank G. Kauffman, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Southwest Missouri State University, thinks that here is a growing awareness that encourages neighbors and others to be more willing to report cases or to at least error on the conservative side. But Kauffman says the question to ask is “are the reported cases being investigated to substantiate the claims?”
Many factors lead to child abuse, such as drugs, alcohol, and poverty level. “Add to those, domestic violence, lack of parenting skills, and a cycle of abuse and neglect in which parents were abused and neglected,” Kauffman says.
Child abuse is reported in many ways, including mandatory reporting from doctors and schools, but many cases go through the state hotline in Jefferson City. The allegation is referred to a county investigator who can refer the case to the juvenile court system or to a child advocacy center.
The child advocacy center located in Springfield has an 11 member staff, and sees an average of 700 children a year since it opened in 1996. It serves 18 counties in southwest Missouri. Children who are referred to the center have a taped forensic interview, which is a non-leading, fact-finding interview, and/or a medical exam, depending upon the case.
“The center primarily sees cases referred to them for sexual and/or physical abuse, or if the child was a witness to a crime,” says Frevert. “If the child is not interviewed with documentation then the chances of prosecution lesson.”
The Sexual Forensic Exam (SAFE) is performed if there are allegations of penetration or oral contact. The second exam is the Child At Risk Exam (CARE) which is conducted for physical abuse.
“We are the only place where SAFE exams can be done," Frevert says.
After the forensic interview and the medical exams the case manager talks to the non-offending care giver and the investigator from the Children’s Division and allows the caregiver to ask questions. The case manager also can refer the family for counseling or make them aware of useful resources in the community.
The parents of the child do not see the interview tape and the information that is gathered. This information sent to law enforcement as well as the center's medical examiners can be subpoenaed.
The center is just one piece of the puzzle. The Children’s Division investigator can also send a child abuse case through juvenile court. “If a child is sent to us then the child is in court within three days and then has court appearances every three to six months,” Altis says.
Greene County courts use the “what’s in the best interest for the child” model to determine what should be done about the children, says Kauffman. “That standard is riddled with problems, but the most glaring is that it is based on middle class values.”
Since Greene County is located in the Ozarks, an area in which poverty is not uncommon, this can be a problem, says Kauffman. Children who are loved and valued can be taken out of homes because they live in a motel, or in a 'filthy living environment' because these environments do not meet middle class values.
There are two alternatives to this system. The first is the “least detrimental alternative standard” which considers other options such as placing children with an extended family. The second option is to keep kids in the home whenever possible.
“In my view the standard should be ‘ask questions then decide whether to remove’ rather than remove and then ask questions,” Kauffman says.
A child abuse case can take years from start to finish. The case can remain open until the child is 21, but the child has to be under the age of 18 for the case to be opened.