LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) - More than three million cases of child abuse and neglect are reported each year in the United States.
Sadly, more than five children die every day as a result according to the advocacy group Childhelp . Stories that involve children create an emotional response from the public. That was evident following a post on the WLFI Facebook page in September 2012.
News 18 received more likes and comments on this particular Facebook post than any other since our page was created. A woman named Jackie Potts made the post after she claims she found a child knocking on her door one day, with tears in his eyes. She said the 11-year-old boy was left alone in an empty apartment with no electricity.
"He told me how his mom left him the night before last," Potts told News 18 in an interview following the post.
Potts said she called police and Child Protective Services. The mother, who was later identified through court records as Crystal Holt, was charged with Neglect of a Dependent the following month.
It's just one of several stories you have probably watched on News 18 involving a report of suspected child abuse or neglect. Due to the amount of interest in these stories, we decided to take a closer look at how these cases are handled.
Cases of suspected child abuse and/or neglect typically begin with a report to the Department of Child Services (DCS). A call comes into a centralized hotline operated in Indianapolis. A trained intake specialist answers the call and makes a report.
News 18 reached out to the Department of Child Services for this story. We asked if someone would be able to comment on the process of how a case is handled. A spokesperson for DCS told us it would be "inappropriate" to comment on our story. However, a wealth of information was provided to us for research for this report.
We interviewed Tippecanoe Co. Prosecutor Pat Harrington about how cases involving children are handled from a legal point of view.
"If they [DCS] believe the situation warrants law enforcement activity, they refer it to the local police department, that jurisdiction, and a detective is assigned. That detective makes an investigation," explained Harrington.
NOTE: If a child is believed to be in danger, the intake specialist at the DCS call center will contact an employee in the local county office to assist police.
If the case turns criminal, the investigation by local law enforcement ends up on the desk of the county prosecutor. It can take time: weeks, even months. Harrington said he understands the public's frustration when they hear about these cases and wonder why it takes so long for charges to be filed. He wants the public to know it's a necessary process.
"These stories always grab emotionally but we don't make decisions based on emotion. We make decisions based on the facts, evidence and the law," he explained.
When a case involving a child enters the legal system. It may end up in juvenile court.
"In 2012, we had 178 new petitions filed alleging that a child is in need of services (CHINS). That's on top of the existing caseload," said Superior Court Three Judge Faith Graham.
Judge Graham said the stories she hears on a daily basis can be heartbreaking.
"Regardless of the race, the ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, it doesn't matter. We see it all across the board," she said.
Both Harrington and Graham say there are a number of resources in the community for families in crisis. Resources, which they say, families in crisis should take advantage of and not be afraid to ask for help, before a phone call is made to DCS.
"[That way] Maybe we can prevent this long-term impact of this abuse and neglect, leading to delinquency behaviors and then again, a repetitive cycle," said Graham.
There is also an effort to make sure cases of child abuse and neglect are reported. Harrington said the Tippecanoe County Prosecutor's Office is currently going around to area schools making sure teachers know their legal responsibility to make a report.
"We can never do enough to protect children," said Harrington.
DCS also offers informal services to families who need help. On the State of Indiana website, DCS states the ultimate goal is family reunification.
In the last year, a number of complaints have surfaced against DCS. Complaints were made about the centralized child abuse and neglect hotline. Some say phone calls were not returned promptly. Also in 2012, questions surfaced about the lack of oversight over the department following the resignation of then Director James Payne. A news media investigation accused Payne of being personally involved in a family custody case.
State lawmakers say they are hearing the calls for changes to DCS and plan to address these issues this session. Governor Mike Pence also wants improvements, including adding more staff to DCS. In his first "State of the State" address, Pence said he wants to increase funding by $35 million.
State Representative Sheila Klinker (D-District 27) and State Representative
Randy Truitt (R-District 26) say one case of child abuse is one too many. Tune in for News 18 at Six on Wednesday, Feb. 13 to hear what they think needs to change with DCS. We'll also look at the several pieces of legislation currently going through the Indiana General Assembly during the 2013 session.
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