Child sexual abuse, prescription drug abuse, truancy and other child welfare issues were the topics of a public forum in Beckley Monday.
Representatives from child advocacy agencies, the Department of Health and Human Resources, law enforcement, public education, community groups and private citizens participated.
The statewide organization “Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia” is funding child-issues forums across the state.
“The national statistics say one in 4 girls and one in 6 boys under the age of 18 have been sexually abused, and that only one in 10 tell,” said Scott Miller, Executive Director of Just For Kids which hosted the event.
Just For Kids is a Child Advocacy Center in Beckley serving Raleigh, Fayette and Wyoming counties.
“We interviewed 271 children between the ages of 3-18 last year, and if the statistics are correct and only one in 10 tell, there are about 2700 cases just in these three counties alone.”
Just For Kids works with Child Protective Services and law enforcement when there is alleged child criminal abuse. Its nationally trained interviewers spend time with children to help determine what happened.
National data indicates this reduces the trauma for the child, according to Miller.
If abuse is disclosed, Just For Kids provides counseling. The agency also provides prevention and awareness programs throughout the area.
“Everyone that I give the statistics to is shocked. Then nothing much happens,” said Miller. “With the Penn State and Syracuse sexual abuse allegations, people are now clearly aware that this goes on, but what are we doing about it?”
“I know if everyone in the community is conscience of the issues that go on, that it will reduce the incidents of sexual abuse and certainly child abuse over all,” he said.
The Family Resource Networks of Raleigh, Wyoming and Fayette counties gave presentations on the child-focused programs they’ve been able to coordinate and expand in their counties. They reported on parenting classes, early literacy programs, faith-based services, and teen peer-review and support groups.
Skip Jennings of the Fayette County Family Resource Network believes the biggest issue in Fayette County, as well as southern West Virginia, is prescription drug abuse.
“The last statistic I heard was 20% of babies born in Raleigh General Hospital are addicted or have some kind of drug in their system,” said Jennings.
“Not only is drug abuse a problem, truancy is a problem in Fayette County,” he said. “The last statistics that we saw we had about 1970 children truant with more than 10 absences. There are only 6000 students registered in Fayette County.”
“These kids not being in school is going to affect their educational ability and if we don’t solve that we’re just going to continue the cycle of problems that we have now.”
Jennings stressed the goal is intervention with education, so that children would never have to be removed from their homes.
“Any child that comes into foster care is going to have problems later on,” he said. “Research shows that any child going into foster care continues to have problems with education, there are higher dropout percentages, and more people are into substance abuse.”
“So what we need to do is prevent that. We need to have services out there to help families so they don’t have to become involved with Child Protective Services.”
Rep. Nick Joe Rahall attended the conference, calling the safety of children a moral obligation.
“We must hold sacred the trust that children naturally place in adults and pursue and prosecute those who would do them harm,” said Rahall.
“We must continue to invest in our communities, law enforcement, and first responders to make sure they have the tools and technology with which to protect our children from predators,” he said.
The forum was opened for an exchange of questions and ideas. When a participant pointed out that Raleigh County teachers are not trained in a sexual abuse prevention program, Miller Hall, Director of Secondary Education for Raleigh County Schools, took the microphone.
“What you just said really touched me,” said Hall.
“I promise you I’ll take it back to the Superintendent and we’ll get that in teacher staff development because that’s not the way it should be,” he said. “And I promise you, I’ll get that done.”
The group also learned that House bill 4240 and its companion in the Senate, SB 161, known as the Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia Act is making its way through the legislative process.
The bill would invest $1 million in education and prevention programs – and increase the fine for failure to report sexual abuse from $100 to $1000.
The Senate passed its bill Monday and sent it to the House of Delegates.