Child Abuse Prevention Month: How is Vermont protecting your kids?

They're the cases law enforcement officers say never get easier to deal with.  Cases of child abuse.  Reports continue to increase in Vermont.  April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. 

Teresa is an advocate for Prevent Child Abuse Vermont, and a child abuse victim herself.  It's been almost 30 years since she moved to Vermont and away from a life she swore she'd leave behind. 

"There was a lot of physical and sexual abuse, all in relation to my surroundings," says Teresa.  "There was probably between 7 and 10 abuse cases that I went through...stepfather, uncle, neighbors, friends of friends."

Teresa has asked us not to divulge her last name, as some of her abusers don't know where she is.  One of them is currently behind bars.  Memories continue to haunt Teresa.

"Sometimes, I'm triggered by certain things and have a couple weeks where I need to take care of myself and don't want to be around people," says Teresa.  "If I get triggered, I do have anxiety disorder, that along with my PTSD can affect how I function."

Teresa teaches the nurturing program, offered through Prevent Child Abuse Vermont, an advocacy group geared towards stopping child abuse before it happens.

"It teaches parents empathy and learning from past behaviors and how to change them."

It's one resource you can turn to if you know of a potential child abuse, or neglect case.  Reports in Vermont are going up.

"It's probably been in the order of about a 25% increase in the number of reports in the last three or four years," says Ken Schatz, Commissioner of Vermont's Department for Children and Families.

Schatz says so far this year, DCF has seen more than 20,000 reports of child abuse.  Those are mainly called in through DCF's Child Protection Hotline.  That number has steadily increased over the last few years, Schatz says.

"Out of that 20,000 calls, we've investigated a little over 5,000, but that's a significant number in our state," Schatz says.

Data shows since 2014, 50% of children from birth to five years old came into state custody due to opioid abuse in their families.  Schatz says it's the most common factor for neglect that his case workers deal with.

If a criminal investigation is launched, DCF calls on its partnership with the Vermont State Police.  Captain Jean-Paul Sinclair leads VSP's Bureau of Criminal Investigations

"Unfortunately, some victims suffer years of abuse before it's uncovered," says Captain Sinclair.  "Certainly in cases of sexual abuse, it's many times someone that's known to the victim."

Arguably the most publicized case of child abuse in recent years is the death of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon in Poultney.  It happened in February of 2014.  A jury found her stepfather, Denis Duby, guilty of the crime.

DCF put Sheldon back into her home, despite her mother also being accused of child abuse previously.   

Local 22 and Local 44's Megan Carpenter asked this of Ken Schatz: "When you do reintegrate these children of abuse back into the families you had to take them from, how often do you have case workers visiting those children?"

"We have a practice for keeping those cases open for six months, so we'll have regular contact and communication to make sure those children remain safe," Schatz responded.

Since Dezirae's death, Vermont has upgraded its child protection laws and made changes to DCF protocols.  

"We've added case aids to our staffing to provide additional support to our family service workers...we have staff in our central office who have to be consulted in cases of serious physical or sexual abuse," says Schatz.  "We worked with KidSafe Collaborative to create an online training, and have had over 15,000 mandatory reporters go through that mandatory training."

Officials and law enforcement officers say they depend on the public too to spot signs of abuse and report them.

"If suddenly you're seeing differences in behavior, signs of withdrawal, acting out, things that are not typical for this particular child," says Captain Sinclair.  "That's not necessarily definitive of abuse, but it's a red flag."

Teresa says the damage had already been done before those red flags for her were addressed.  

"For example, all of my report cards where you could see how badly I was doing," she says.  "Those are signs that should've been picked up on."

She says the work is far from over to make sure another child doesn't become another statistic.

"They need to have more people listening to their stories and helping them out and not just giving them a number."

To further child abuse prevention efforts, lawmakers created the Joint Legislative Child Protection Oversight Committee in 2015.  Legislation is pending to extend its authority, which runs out in June.  DCF is also waiting to hear if it will receive $500,000 in additional funding from the Governor.  





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