Local courts hear lots of child abuse cases, many others go unreported

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(KWTX) Each Texan is required by law to report suspected child abuse or neglect, but even with millions of eyes watching, many cases go unreported and those young victims don’t get help.

“Every Texan is required by state law to report cases of suspected abuse or neglect and many are reported, but we know there are others that aren’t,” Marissa Gonzales, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and its Child Protective Services division, said.

Of course, it’s a question with no answer because no one can say how many such cases didn’t get reported, but experts in the field say it’s likely that for every 10 cases reported to authorities, probably three slip through the cracks.

That figure is at best a guess but it’s based on the numbers of cases that do get reported and the trends established by comparing years-worth of data the agency has collected.

Police on the street in Waco’s Crimes Against Children (CAC) unit say the disparity may be much worse.

The Children’s Advocacy Center concept originated in 1983 and since then “there has been significant research that suggests most cases of child abuse and neglect go unreported,” CAC Sgt. Jason Lundquist said.

Dr. Kerry Burkley, program director at Waco’s Advocacy Center said it’s more likely, based upon nationwide trends, that for each abuse or neglect case reported, as many as eight more are not.

The latest numbers reported by CPS statewide show in Bell County in March 2019 CPS was handling 358 reported cases involving children and in McLennan County that number was 255.

Those are cumulative numbers, but applying the state formula to that number suggests there may be as many as 184 child abuse or neglect incidents that were not reported but should have been.

Reported cases are on the rise, so it only makes sense that unreported incidents are rising, as well, Taina Maya, 2018-2019 Advocacy Center Board of Directors, said.

On the record, over the past year the Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children has conducted 569 developmentally sensitive and legally sound forensic interviews for children ages 2-17, has responded to 386 crisis hotline calls and performed 190 sexual assault medical exams of children and adults in the Central Texas region, the center’s data shows.

Incidents involving abuse or neglect of children in this neck of the woods are commonplace, Bell County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Chuck Cox said.

“We just handled one last night when we assisted CPS in serving a Writ of Attachment for three children where we took three children into custody and handed them over to CPS,” Cox said.

Law enforcement and CPS are “cross-reporting” agencies in Texas, meaning law enforcement is bound to notify CPS when they encounter a case involving children and CPS is directed to notify law enforcement when they are made aware of an abuse or neglect case.

“That’s a very good thing,” Lundquist said, because it keeps the agencies on the same page in cases involving children.

In most cases the reports are handled by CPS as civil issues, but there are cases that rise to the level of criminal charges, and that’s where police and prosecutors get involved.

“It would have to be a situation that violated both the family code and the penal code, but that does happen, Assistant Coryell County District Attorney Scott Stevens said.

For example, he said, should CPS recover a child that showed signs of recent spanking, that might not rise to a criminal complaint, but should that child show signs of continuous physical abuse, or should the abuse be more traumatic, criminal charges could be in order, Stevens said.

The Texas Family Code outlines abuse or neglect as anything that includes the mental or emotional injury to a child that results in an observable and material impairment in the child's growth, development, or psychological functioning and failure to make a reasonable effort to prevent an action by another person that results in physical injury that results in substantial harm to the child.

The statue goes on to specifically identify sexual abuse as any sexual conduct harmful to a child's mental, emotional, or physical welfare, including conduct that constitutes the offense of continuous sexual abuse of young child or children, with a child under, sexual assault or aggravated sexual assault under as defined under separate sections of the Texas Penal Code.

It’s groups like the Advocacy Centers that are driving education on the issue, Burkley said, himself having written a manual for pastors and clergy members on how to spot signs of abuse or neglect that should be reported.

“We go out of our way to make sure anyone, especially those who are mandated reporters like police or teachers and counselors, doctors and hospital staff, is trained to spot the first signs of abuse or neglect,” he said.

The most important thing is to raise awareness, teach children about safety and just be “hyper-vigilant when it comes to our kids,” Burkley said.