Number of abused or neglected children down in Johnson County

BY BETH BRATSOS | APRIL 02, 2012 6:30 AM

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The number of Iowa children abused or neglected is on the way down, and Johnson County is following the trend.

An Iowa Department of Human Services report released March 20 cites a nearly 7 percent decrease in the statewide number of children subject to abuse last year, following two years of increases. In Johnson County, the number of children subject to either "founded" abuse or a less serious "confirmed" abuse dropped from 357 to 325 from 2010 to 2011, also following two years of increases.

A confirmed abuse is minor, isolated, and the caretaker involved will unlikely allow the incident to occur again. In a confirmed abuse, potential harm to a child is identified and fixed right away and the caregiver is not placed on the child-abuse registry, said Roger Munns, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services . A founded abuse is more serious, and the perpetrator is placed on the child abuse registry.

Though Munns is unsure what has caused the decrease, he said the unstable state of the economy can be one factor.

"Generally speaking, when a bad economy causes stress on a family, that stress can spread from not just the bank account or pocket book, it can spread to the foundation of the family itself," he said. "If family is stressed, it can make a decision it wouldn't normally make."

That doesn't mean an income determines a person's ability to parent, he said.

The most common form of child abuse on county and statewide levels is often neglect or denial of critical care, Munns said.

"This is a catch-all category," he said. "Very common in that category are people whose judgment is impaired by drugs or alcohol," he said.

Neglect made up 79 percent of total child-abuse cases in both Johnson County and the overall state last year. Physical abuse and presence of illegal drugs in a child's system were the next-most common in the county.

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, studies show one or two out of every three cases of child maltreatment involve some degree of substance use. A recent case saw a local woman charged with child endangerment causing bodily injury after the child tested with a .09 blood alcohol concentration, according to a police complaint. Natasha Kriener, the child's mother and caretaker at the time, allegedly had a .251 blood alcohol content the day of the incident.

Research by the organization also suggested child maltreatment can occur in three to six out of every 10 families where spousal abuse takes place. Dee Dixon, assistant executive director at the Domestic Violence Intervention Program in Iowa City, said counseling, crisis intervention, and maintaining a normal schedule are important factors for children in cases of domestic violence.

"[It's important] that they are able to have a childhood even though they are in crisis and dealing with issues of safety," she said. "We offer programs to victims of domestic violence in terms of mothers and their children… working with them and making sure they are able to participate as other children do."

New parents need to be educated on keeping a safe environment for children and what actions constitute abuse, Iowa City police Sgt. Denise Brotherton said.

"Awareness is important," she said. "Often abuse is a result of a situation going on in the family … One of the biggest risk factors is substance abuse."

She said the police department works closely with the Department of Human Services in cases of child abuse. Reports of child endangerment are not the most common type of report the department receives, she said, but they are important.

"There are still things the family may need, or the child may need after a criminal charge," she said. "When you hear it, see it, or suspect it, report it. It's about protecting the most vulnerable people in our society."

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