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For Your Protection: Child Abuse

Child Abuse screen shot
Posted at 5:30 PM, Apr 30, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-03 11:07:55-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) -- It's mid-morning on a Tuesday when Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins is walking through the Florida Abuse Hotline in Tallahassee.

The room is filled with sounds of whispered conversations, phones ringing, and the clicking of computer keyboards. Wilkins is seeing first hand what some groups, like national non-profit Childhelp, call a hidden epidemic.

"The enormity of child abuse in this state is something the average citizen has no understanding of," Secretary Wilkins said.

According to statistics from Florida DCF, 130 children died in 2012 as the result of being abused or neglected.  

Their cases were first discovered with a phone call to the Florida Abuse Hotline in Tallahassee. It's a 24/7 operation, taking calls from across the state from people reporting suspected abuse and neglect against children and seniors.

Wilkins says it takes nearly 100 people to staff the center. By 10 a.m. on this Tuesday they've already fielded more than 400 phone calls. That number each day can exceed 1,500 phone calls launching 179,000 new investigations each year.

"It's disheartening to know anyone could abuse a child," Secretary Wilkins said. "It's hard for me, when I took the job to realize I need 100 operators just to deal with abuse and neglect phone calls coming in."

Those numbers are still shadowed nationally. Childhelp reports there are nearly 3.3 million reports of child abuse made each year in the United States; those reports involving nearly 6 million children.

While they report far fewer cases than Florida it's a problem that is not contained within state lines. As the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services shows in their 2012 Child Death Report, not all children survive abuse and neglect.

Of the 130 children who died in 2012, in Florida, 6 of them were from the Big Bend area:

  -Columbia - 1

  -Hamilton - 1

  -Jackson - 1

  -Leon - 1

  -Suwannee - 2

The majority of the death reports come from South Florida. Broward County had the most with 18.

When a call comes into the Florida Abuse Hotline, employees work to take down as much information as they can. They assess the situation and then pass it on to the local field office.

We saw this first hand as we went out into the field with Byron Wade, an investigator with Department of Children and Families in Leon County.

"There's always been the negative view that we're just there to take people's kids," Wade said. "That's definitely not the case. We have a lot of resources and a lot of service providers in this area. Our goal is to keep the family together to make it stronger."

In the case Wade took us along, he was investigating a report about a 17 year old who was kicked out of their home in Tallahassee. Wade says the job of him and his peers is to find solutions for families and resources to help them resolve any issues they may be dealing with.

Investigations into each case can be tedious. It involves hours of work interviewing anyone and everyone who may know the family members in question. Often time Wade says they can resolve a case and help families get resources like counseling.

But, he says there are those cases that are more difficult to deal with.

"You see some things you never thought you'd see before," Wade said. "You have to go home sometimes and have some time to process what you've been through."

State leaders are working to cut down on child abuse and neglect. Secretary Wilkins says that involves identifying the problems that lead to abuse and neglect.

"Unfortunately the majority of calls tend to be around prescription drug or substance abuse issues and the parents either have these issues and are exposing these children and neglecting these children," Wilkins said.

While drug abuse is one catalyst, Wilkins says it's not the only reason.

The only way to stop child abuse and neglect, Wilkins says, is you. Now, by law it's up to you. Governor Rick Scott signed a new law at the end of 2012 now requiring any person who suspects neglect or abuse of a child or senior to report it to the Florida Abuse Hotline.

"Most people do not realize that, old rules and old child welfare system in the state there were mandated reporters, teachers, health care professions, law enforcement professionals - now everyone in the state is a reporter," Wilkins said. "if anyone sees abuse or neglect occuring in their community or in their social setting they have an obligation to report it."

Wilkins explains in the terms of abuse and neglect it's not always physical.

"When you look at why children die in this state, they die from drowning, they die in sleepovers where parents fall asleep on children, children die in cars, in heated cars and in Florida particularly that's a big issue and people in our community can see those things happening in a lot of cases," Wilkins said.

Florida ranks among the nation in child drowning deaths. Many times children were unsupervised at the time. Wilkins says it's important for everyone to be aware of their surroundings.

"People have a much larger role to play in this than they realize and if they do children will be much more safe," Wilkins said. "

Signs of abuse my include:

· Frequent bruises or broken bones

· Frequent school absences

· Sudden emotional withdrawal

· Sudden aggressive behavior

· Nightmares

· Acting out in school

· Displays of irrational fear of certain places, situations or people

· Regression to an earlier stage of development: bed-wetting or thumb-sucking

· Social isolation

· Inadequate personal hygiene

Click HERE to learn more about how to report child and senior abuse and neglect in FLORIDA.

Click HERE to learn more about how to report child and senior abuse and neglect in GEORGIA.