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September 20, 2014

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economy:

Child abuse escalates with money woes

Agencies report spike in neglect, violence in recent months

With joblessness and foreclosure rates hitting record highs in the Las Vegas Valley, stressed-out parents and caregivers are more likely to abuse or neglect their children, according to experts.

“All that abuse that’s always been there in families is still there, but now families that were on the cusp are having more problems,” said Michelle Howser, in-home family services program director for Boys Town of Nevada.

In a grim indicator that appears to follow the worsening economy, several agencies that deal with the issue report rising numbers.

Take Clark County Family Services. The agency has seen “an alarming rate of severe abuse, child fatalities and severe injuries,” spokeswoman Christine Skorupski said.

She cited a March spike in the number of children who were brought to the county’s Child Haven shelter as one of the red flags: 408 compared with 275 for the same month a year earlier.

“We know that the numbers typically go up in the spring, but we saw it get earlier the last couple of years. It happened in April last year, but March this year.”

“We can’t say definitively that the reason is the economy, but as stress rises in families, the risks to the children go up,” Skorupski said.

Metro Police are also seeing increasing numbers of serious abuse and neglect cases. The abuse/neglect unit has investigated the deaths of four children killed in allegedly abusive situations so far this year, as many cases as in all of 2008. And seven children died because of “shaken baby syndrome” so far this year, compared with nine in all of last year, according Lisa Teele, supervisor of the unit.

“What we are finding is that the types of cases are changing,” Teele said, referring to the increases in fatalities.

Metro will be launching a program called “Just Step Back” in the coming weeks to deal with the issue, Teele said. The program will take Metro officers into hospitals and schools to talk with parents about stress and refer them to free parenting classes at the Area Health Education Center of Southern Nevada, a nonprofit organization.

Howser, of Boys Town, said many parents are recognizing that they need help dealing with increasing pressures. In the first five months of this year, 242 families have come to her organization for help with stress, up from 174 during the same period last year, Howser said. That’s a 39 percent increase. About 30 families are on a waiting list.

Howser was one of several dozen front-line social workers, program supervisors and agency directors who attended a workshop Monday on how to confront the fallout from failing workplaces and unpaid mortgages.

In a small auditorium at the College of Southern Nevada, psychologist Thomas P. Dowd, former director of national resources for Boys Town, told the gathering that 80 percent of families across the nation listed the economy as a source of stress in an American Psychological Association survey taken last fall. That was 14 percentage points more than in the same survey taken five months earlier.

The percentage would likely be even higher now, as the economy has continued to slide.

County employees whose job it is to protect children have seen “a marked increase” in abuse and neglect cases in recent months, Skorupski said.

From January through the end of March, county investigators found 357 cases of abuse or neglect as a result of calls to the child abuse hotline. Then, in April and May, more calls resulted in 381 substantiated cases, Skorupski said.

On the police side, Teele said she had 124 cases of children lacking supervision reported to her unit through this week, compared with 204 last year. If the cases continue at the same rate, the year-end total for 2009 will be nearly 22 percent higher than that of 2008.

Those numbers may be a sign the economy’s poor pickings have some parents working extra shifts at new jobs that pay less, leaving children unattended. “People are trying to work and can’t afford child care,” Teele said.

Or they can’t afford good child care.

Metro arrested 28-year-old Tina Cicchetti on Monday night, for example, and charged her with two felony counts of child abuse for allegedly using a curling iron to inflict third-degree burns on the neck and heel of a 3-year-old boy. She had been babysitting the child and his 5-year-old brother at her home since January, police said.

Staying home with the children doesn’t necessarily lessen stress for parents, however, and can even heighten tension in the family.

Families with one or both spouses out of work are faced, for example, with explaining to their older children how, and why, their economic situation has changed, said Karla Banda, an assistant program manager at Area Health Education Center of Southern Nevada.

“They’re cutting extras — cell phones, iPods ... They’re down to one vehicle and taking kids to activities becomes more difficult. Many feel they can’t discuss this with their children. They feel failure.”

This is the recession’s “trickle-down effect,” another way the economy gnaws at the ties in a family, Banda said.

Dowd, who spoke at Monday’s workshop, said losing a job is the third most stressful event that can happen to an adult. Only losing a spouse and losing a child are more stressful.

After losing a job or house, parents can become more authoritarian or more removed, Dowd said.

“It’s very difficult to maintain a good parenting style when you’re under stress.”

But parents can also be coached to keep their stress in check, he said.

Banda said more parents in her agency’s six-week free classes are asking for therapeutic help that goes beyond the curriculum.

“Parents wait after the class and say, ‘I think I need help,’ ” Banda said.

Howser said many of the families she sees are seeking help not only with stress, but also with basic needs — food, diapers, transportation. “These are families entering a world of social services that they never have seen before,” she said.

Dowd noted that the Las Vegas Valley is more challenged than many because the economy was rosy for so long — a real estate boom, a trifling unemployment rate. This is different from places that have slid into hardship over a longer period of time, or overcome setbacks in recent history.

“Communities with more history are more resilient,” Dowd said. “If you have no history, then it’s almost catastrophic.”

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