Officials: The best way to fight child abuse is by reporting it

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It’s unusual for two severe cases of alleged child maltreatment to occur in such quick succession as they did last week in Hagerstown and Hancock, according to a Washington County Sheriff’s Office detective.

“We don’t normally get such tragic cases so close together,” said Detective Casey Swope, who was heading to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to check on the welfare of the Hancock 6-year-old.

The boy was reportedly on life support after an alleged beating early Friday morning. His mother’s boyfriend faces charges in the case.

It was the second report of severe child abuse in the area in a week. In the other case, 9-year-old Jack Kirby Garcia died Sunday of injuries he received June 30 in the city.

His mother’s boyfriend has been charged in the incident in which Garcia was allegedly beaten for taking a piece of birthday cake, according to charging documents.

Although the timing of the two incidents might be unusual, what isn’t unusual is the incidence of child abuse in the county.

The county averages 185 reports of child maltreatment per month, according to the most recent child welfare services data from the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

Those reports don’t always indicate actual abuse or neglect — “they’re not always accepted for investigation,” said Mike Piercy, assistant director for Adult, Child and Family Services at the Washington County Department of Social Services.

The department follows established guidelines for response, but “usually we accept 115 to 130” for investigation, he said.

The “115 to 130” cases investigated every month earn the county a dubious distinction.

“We’re usually in the top five (counties) in the state,” social services Director David Engle said.

Severe cases in which a child must be hospitalized occur approximately once a month, Piercy said.

Although Swope stays busy investigating reports — “we get cases all week long” — she noted that “we’re not as busy when school’s out.”

That doesn’t mean abuse doesn’t happen; it just doesn’t get reported as often, she said.

“Kids confide in each other during school,” she said. “Someone tells a teacher or counselor, and they report it.”

In fact, “most child welfare referrals come from Washington County Public Schools; from teachers and counselors,” Engle said.

Their due diligence could account for the high number of reports, he said.

With the county’s attention riveted on the two recent severe cases — and with children being perhaps more vulnerable when school’s out — Engle and Piercy want to let everyone know help is available, both for victims and adults who might do harm to a child.

“We want to get the word out that there’s a lot of help available,” Engle said. “Anyone can call us … neighbors, family members, friends — if you know that a parent is struggling, please call us.”

Social services has conducted “a number of public awareness campaigns” to combat child abuse in Washington County, with officials making appearances at the Hancock Walk to End Child Abuse, events at Elgin Station, service organization meetings and others, Piercy said.

“We’ll come speak to anybody,” Engle added.

Pa. hotline available

Pennsylvania maintains a hotline to report suspected child abuse. The telephone number is 800-932-0313.

“If you are wrong (about what you suspect), nothing bad is going to happen. If you’re right, that call may save a child’s life,” Dianne Kelso said.

Kelso is executive director of Over The Rainbow Children’s Advocacy Center in Franklin County, Pa. The center offers forensic interviews, forensic medical exams and mental health counseling.

“One of the most important things is children’s voices need to be heard, often in their own way depending on their age and cognitive ability. We really need to listen to children when they have a story to tell,” Kelso said.

In 2013, there were 283 reports of alleged child abuse in Franklin County. Of those, 42 were substantiated as child abuse, according to Over The Rainbow’s statistics.

Community members should be vigilant for children’s physical injuries that don’t have rational, appropriate explanations, Kelso said.

A former police detective, Kelso has heard adults say they wish they would have reported warning signs before something debilitating or fatal occurred to the child.

“In my personal experience, I think most child abuse cases that have ended at their most horrific, there were signs prior to that end,” she said.

Staff Writer Jennifer Fitch contributed to this story.

Source: Herald Mail Media