Best way to prevent child abuse? Step in early, cops say
A boy sits in an interview room with an Aurora detective, his expression withdrawn, his thoughts all over the place, his injuries healing.
His grandmother alerted police to the boy's condition. She feared abuse after the boy's mother, unable to cope with the demands of raising her child, left him with a teenage friend who had "even less coping skills than she does," Detective Kevin Jenkins said.
"He hit this child with a spatula on his genitals," Jenkins said about the abuser in one recent case. "He just brutalized this kid."
Such situations occur throughout the suburbs, and it's never OK for onlookers to stay silent, detectives and child abuse prevention advocates say.
"If you see something, say something" applies not only to suspicious suitcases at an airport but also to situations in which children are being harmed.
Adults often hesitate to report abuse. They fear being wrong and directing undue attention toward the parent or person in question. They fear being outed as the informant. They fear the worst.
But what they should fear most, Aurora Detective Jennifer Hillgoth said, is being right but doing nothing.
"Don't take the chance not to call," she said, reflecting on the child protective work that's become her calling as police are in the midst of an April campaign for Child Abuse Prevention Month. "I fear we're missing the ones that are actually being abused."
Aurora police can't put a concrete figure to the number of cases they investigated last year because child abuse spans multiple crime categories. Abused kids can be victims of domestic abuse, aggravated batteries, sex abuse, endangerment, neglect -- so many criminal behaviors that it certainly adds up to hundreds of cases each year, Hillgoth and Jenkins say.
Categorized differently, the abuse cases share one thing: They're tragic.
"We see babies who are not even old enough to hold their head up with brain injuries and broken bones," Hillgoth said. "Neighbors call about kids who look like they're being neglected. They're outside in just a diaper and it's filthy and they're alone."
The time is now to prevent and report child abuse, said Deb Bree of the Kane County Child Advocacy Center, which steps in to help with all countywide cases of reported child sex abuse -- 295 of them in 2014 and 308 in 2015.
"If you can step in early," said Bree, the center's director, "you can help these children by preventing either further abuse or any abuse from starting."
National statistics cited by Aurora police show one in 10 children will be sexually abused before age 18, and five children nationwide die each day from abuse and neglect.
Hillgoth said the littlest children are most likely to be abused because they're the most vulnerable.
But among school-aged kids, the risk remains high -- especially if their parents or guardians use harsh physical discipline, abuse alcohol or drugs, belittle or insult their children, see children as a burden or seem unconcerned about their welfare.
Possible signs of child abuse are plentiful, though some are subtle: Nervousness around adults or fear of certain adults. Reluctance to go home. Anxiety. Sudden changes in performance at school. Unexplained burns or bruises, or any injury that doesn't match the explanation given. Some abused kids may show withdrawal and passive behavior, while others could exhibit aggression and disruptive behavior.
The key is to "trust your instincts" and report any child treatment that just doesn't seem right, Bree said.
Teachers and school social workers are among mandated reporters, required by law to contact the state Department of Child and Family Services if they observe or suspect abuse or neglect.
Social workers in Indian Prairie Unit District 204, which includes portions of Aurora and Naperville, stay on the lookout by developing a rapport with any student who is struggling at school. These professionals open up lines of conversation so the child can feel comfortable sharing problems at home, said Mike Treptow, social work coordinator.
In one case Hillgoth and Jenkins handled, police discovered ongoing sexual abuse against a teenage girl because adults at her school noticed she had begun self-mutilating. The girl told school officials and investigators about sexual abuse at the hands of her mother's boyfriend, and police found "old, healing injuries."
Victims of child sex abuse are all referred to counseling when their cases come to the Kane County Child Advocacy Center.
"Anything we can do to make sure victims are getting appropriate counseling and therapy goes a long way," Bree said.
A critical call
Adults who suspect abuse shouldn't hesitate to call the DCFS hotline at (800) 252-2873, or their local police department.
DCFS omits the name of the reporter in most circumstances -- even to police -- so there's no risk of being outed as the informant, Hillgoth said. And when calling police, tipsters always can remain anonymous.
Plus, Bree says the public can take comfort in the professionalism of everyone involved in investigating child abuse -- DCFS case workers, detectives, state's attorney's investigators, attorneys, counselors and child advocates, especially.
"The people who work in child protection are the most dedicated individuals I've ever met," Bree said. "They are clearly here to protect the child and do what's best."
Hillgoth and Jenkins say love for their own children -- Hillgoth's are 2 and 3, while Jenkins' are 31 and 33 -- motivates them to protect other kids from harm.
"The other day I was here for 22 hours on just one case," Hillgoth said. She's got files for 30 of them on her desk now. But "we are never, ever too busy to take on another child abuse case and look into it."