Entering foster care

In Tight Economy, Kids at Risk

By Katharhynn Heidelberg, Montrose Daily Press • April 11, 2009 MONTROSE —-

In 2007, one child in every 127 Montrose County children was maltreated through neglect or abuse. These statistics from the state's Division of Child Welfare Services underscore the severity of a problem local child advocates say is being fueled by substance abuse and the declining economy.

"Since the downswing in the economy, we have seen an increase in our numbers. Last year at this time, we had seen 11 children. This year, to date, we've seen 25," Dolphin House Executive Director Kay Alexander said. "Families are under stress. Breadwinners are having hours cut, or have lost their jobs. That puts stress on the family." The Dolphin House provides services to child abuse victims, primarily child sexual abuse victims. Montrose County Health and Human Services handles all types of abuse cases: sexual, physical, psychological and neglect.

Neglect can be anything from keeping an unreasonably filthy home, to neglecting to get a child necessary medical care. Abuse runs the gamut and in Montrose County is primarily physical, plus the emotional scarring that goes along with it. The abuse alleged in some cases can be extreme. A man in neighboring Delta County was recently charged with first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death, over what prosecutors say was the brutal beating death of his 5-month-old daughter. The suspect, Daven Beck, denies killing the baby. In Montrose County earlier this week, Juan Prieto-Gonzalez was charged with vehicular homicide-DUI and child abuse resulting in death. His 8-year-old son died in an accident the Colorado State Patrol alleges was caused by Prieto-Gonzalez's drunken, reckless driving.

Montrose County officials say parental abuse of drugs or alcohol plays a role in child abuse cases here. "In a lot of our cases, the common thread is substance abuse," Katie Sievers, program manager at HHS, said."We know that when children are in (substance-abusing) homes, especially where there is meth, that they're so much more vulnerable to child sex abuse," Alexander said. "When the caretaker is off drugging, they're not able to be protective of the child. There are often times there are other people in the home who can take advantage. We're seeing more of that happening."

In 2008, Montrose County HHS received more than 500 child-abuse referrals, Sievers said. Referrals come from the public and through mandated reporters, such as school employees, healthcare providers and law enforcement officials. Referrals are screened through criteria set by the state. Caseworkers assess risks to the children, and depending on findings, action can be immediate. The information caseworkers gather goes to a child protection team, with recommendations. Depending on the circumstances, cases are referred to the courts, or voluntary cases can be opened for low-risk families that are cooperative.

"We try and find other options before placing a child out of the home," Sievers said. The goal, too, is to reunite families whose children have been removed, and HHS is under a state mandate to exhaust all services that can lead to that reunion. "Every child has the right to live in their own home and if they can't live in their home, they have a right to be in the same community," Sievers said. She said there are good services in place for at-risk and abused children, though more collaboration would help minimize the risk to children. "But it's more than sitting at the table. It's really finding out what one agency can offer and filling those gaps. We are in hard economic times and I think that impacts what we see," Sievers said.

Alexander said she knows child abuse can be an uncomfortable topic and people who suspect abuse don't always know what to do. "People in communities need to become more aware of the things to look for. We need to feel that we can be a child's protector or advocate," she said. "I think sometimes people shy away from speaking up when they see something that doesn't look right. We all need to be child advocates."

Original article, Montrose Daily Press retrieved on April 14, 2009

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