Guest Blog – Irreparable Harm

Irreparable Harm

Child abuse
— Agencies in Salina reach out to families to try to curb violence against children

By Erin Mathews
Salina Journal, April 29, 2012

It’s a sobering fact about Salina: In the past seven months, authorities allege that two children who lived here were killed by abuse in their homes.Representatives of agencies that work with families with young children expressed frustration and horror that 14-month-old Clayden Lee Urbanek and 18-month-old Bre’Elle Ciara Jefferson may have been fatally abused.

“It makes me sick,” said Charyl Zier, program coordinator for Heartland Programs, which administers Early Headstart, Headstart and Parents as Teachers. “How did we miss them? Why didn’t they know about us, or if they did, what could we have done to engage them?”

Vicki Price, education director of Child Advocacy and Parenting Services, said she and her co-workers know they are making a difference in the lives of children whose parents seek CAPS assistance to learn new parenting skills.

But they also know there are other families they are not reaching before irreparable harm is done.

Elaine Edwards, executive director of Salina Childcare, said she hopes that new United Way grant funding received by a coalition of 13 local organizations over a three-year period starting in July will help institute some new approaches that include more of the families who aren’t currently receiving services.

The goal of Partners in Early Childhood Education, or PIECE, is to help children enter school on track developmentally in the areas of literacy and social, emotional and intellectual skills.

“We’re trying to come up with different ways of reaching parents so we can expand services to other families who aren’t able to bring their children into existing programs,” she said.

Price said she hopes the deaths awaken an awareness of the need for change in Salina that will result in improvements in the living conditions and opportunities available for children. She also encouraged anyone who suspects sexual or physical abuse or neglect of a child to report it to authorities.

“If the community gets enraged, that’s when something could happen,” she said. One example of a new level of community involvement occurred Saturday, when a walk to raise awareness of the problem of child abuse organized by two young Salina women took place in honor of Clayden, who died Oct. 4, and Bre’Elle, who died April 10. Funds raised at the event were donated to CAPS.
The damage violence causes

Price said research has proven the damage caused by striking a child. “If kids don’t see their parents hitting them or hitting each other, and no one thinks of that as a tool in their parenting toolbox, it would be like a dinosaur and become extinct,” she said. A generation raised in homes free of abuse would mean many more children who grow up to be “capable, healthy and strong,” she said.

Nationwide, the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System reported an estimated 1,770 children died — about one every five hours — from abuse and neglect in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available. In Kansas that year, 10 children were killed by abuse-related homicide, according to a report by the Kansas State Child Death Review Board.

According to a BBC investigation released in October 2011, 66 children under the age of 15 die from physical abuse or neglect each week in the industrialized world. Twenty-seven of those deaths occur in the United States, which loses more children to abuse and neglect than any other country.
Saline County statistics

Between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011, in Saline County, the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services “screened in” 608 reports of abuse and neglect for further assessment. Of those, 42 were found to meet the state’s standard of “clear and convincing evidence” that abuse or neglect occurred.

Statewide during that time, 20,353 reports of abuse and neglect were screened in, with 1,823 being substantiated.

Price said some of the biggest contributing factors toward child abuse are alcohol and drug use, mental illness and a perpetrator who experienced abusive rearing as a child. Stress and an immature, impulsive response to anger can trigger violence, and whether the recipient is a colicky infant who is shaken or an older child who is struck or kicked, the effects can be lifelong and devastating, she said.
Breaking the abuse cycle

Carolee Jones, executive director of CAPS, said the agency has helped many people who have ultimately overcome crisis and broken out of the cycle of abuse. She said CAPS mentors help families navigate the systems and find services to assist them. CAPS assists families of any income level with children of any age.

She said one client was a father who received custody of his daughter after she was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. CAPS helped the man work through problems such as temporary homelessness and supported him as he learned how to parent, she said. “He called two or three times a day because he didn’t know what to do,” she said. “He doesn’t call anymore. His daughter’s gone from truancy to taking summer school and successfully completing the next grade.”

Another former CAPS client is now involved in assisting with the agency’s Child Advocacy Center, where child victims of sexual abuse are interviewed, she said. “The support and advocacy she was given kind of rewrote the story of her life,” she said. CAPS and Early Headstart home visitors teach the importance of nurturing and bonding with infants, knowledge of child development and parental coping skills. They encourage social and family connections and provide a resource for support to prevent maltreatment of children from occurring.
It takes commitment

Among Heartland’s services are 90-minute weekly in-home visits in which Early Headstart employees educate low-income pregnant women and mothers of children up to age 3 on an array of child-raising subjects. The goal is to get at-risk kids ready to learn by the time they are old enough for kindergarten, Zier said.

“It takes commitment,” Zier said. “The first thing people do is revert back to how they were raised. We try to teach them there are other ways that work better and support them as they go through the issues. We share with them the latest and greatest research.” She said home educators build up a relationship of trust with families and help them build on their strengths. They talk to parents about their beliefs and thoughts concerning discipline techniques and steer them away from corporal punishment.
Spanking is not OK

She said a big topic of discussion is developmental milestones so that families don’t expect too much of their children at too young of an age. That frustration can sometimes trigger abuse.

“Sometimes people don’t have realistic expectations for their child,” Zier said. “We tell them a 2-year-old will bite and this is what you do. A 3-month-old will not sleep through the night and this is what you do. People have a lack of knowledge about how bad things can go wrong. They have a lack of knowledge of how easily a child can be injured.”

Another dangerous period for abuse is during potty training. She said often parents believe children are being defiant when in reality they simply aren’t developmentally ready to go without diapers.

CAPS mentors work with families to help shield kids from abuse, and they discourage spanking. Price said the fact that there is a special word for hitting children on the buttocks makes it seem like an acceptable discipline technique. It isn’t, and there are much more effective ways to teach a child to change behavior, she said.

“Spanking teaches kids that those who love you can hurt you, and that’s acceptable behavior in our society,” Price said.

— Reporter Erin Mathews can be reached at 822-1415 or by email at