The case numbers of agencies serving children highlight a grim reality in Montrose and the area — child abuse is a persistent crime.
Of the 299 calls made last year to Child Protective Services that met criteria for further investigation, 120 were deemed founded. “There was some abuse or neglect going on in the home,” Montrose County Adult and Child Protective Services Program Manager Stephanie Holsinger said.
At the Dolphin House Child Advocacy Center, 239 child victims received services in 2018, and as in the past several years, sexual abuse dominated the caseload.
CASA of the 7th Judicial District, the agency that assists kids in civil dependency and neglect cases, is working 30 active cases.
“It’s a problem everywhere, not just Montrose,” said Lauren Cook, CASA program manager. “I think Montrose has the need for the caring and compassionate people who want to help with the system. There are needs for CASAs (caseworkers) because there are abuse and neglect cases.”
The Dolphin House serves child victims and their non-offending family members. It provides a central, child-friendly location for forensic interviews, forensic examinations, mental health assessments, and connections with other resources, for all six counties in the 7th Judicial District.
In addition to the 239 primary victims in 2018, the Dolphin House saw 53 new children the first quarter of this year, roughly comparable to the 56 new cases from last year’s first quarter.
“People are knowing where to go and where to report and what to do,” Executive Director Jacob Conklin said.
“It’s a double-edged sword. It’s frightening when you see a number like that, but it’s also indicative that, hopefully, people are doing something about it, reporting it, and trying to get it to stop.”
The agencies’ numbers do not necessarily match the number of criminal cases prosecutors file, as not every report leads to an arrest. Conklin was able to share some law enforcement data, though. He said that of the 168 sexual assaults reported to law enforcement in Montrose and Delta, 119 of the victims were children.
Different roles, united concern
Child Protective Services operates as part of Montrose County Health and Human Services. It is a federal program, but state-run, and intervenes in instances when there are safety risks to children in the home.
Referrals can come in from medical professionals, school professionals, even the general public; these are screened against statutory criteria to see if they merit further investigation. Those that do undergo additional review.
The goal is not to keep kids from their homes, but to work with families and bring in services to eliminate the risk factors, Holsinger said. Although it is not always possible, reunification is the No. 1 goal, she said.
“Families love each other, whether there’s risks. Children love their parents. That’s where they want to be. That’s where we believe they should be, if it’s possible,” Holsinger said.
At CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, trained volunteers accompany child victims of dependency and neglect cases through the court system. Such cases (again, they are civil in nature) involve children who have been deemed to be dependent on the state because of abuse or neglect.
The volunteers, also called CASAs, are there to represent the child’s specific, unique needs and provide them with a voice; their work involves cooperation with multiple other players.
“I think it’s a community investment to really take notice of the problem. If our community is investing in the system … we’re going to help solve the problem as a whole,” Cook said.
Pinpointing the causes of child abuse is difficult and every case is unique.
Cook and Holsinger see drug-use as a big driver.
“Parental drug-use leads to neglect. It can lead to physical abuse as well, however, we do see more neglect,” Holsinger said.
The number of CPS cases where there are significant mental health issues or drug-use is “very, very high,” she added.
CASA operates the Face It Together peer-coaching program for those affected by addiction, which is funded by a grant through the Montrose Community Foundation. CASA also works with other agencies to link clients with other services.
“There are a lot of things out there people can take advantage of, but that (drug-use) is kind of the No. 1 issue we deal with in our dependency and neglect cases,” Cook said.
Drug-use is far from the only factor, however. Conklin, whose background is in counseling and who is also the mental health coordinator for The Dolphin House, looks at cases individually. In some of his cases, the offender is also a child.
“There is always a need for more discussions around sex education, and, at least with parents and caregivers, kid-on-kid abuse; trying to be mindful of what’s being looked at on electronics and how interactions are happening between peers,” Conklin said.
Juveniles who act out sexually can benefit from therapy and in his experience, those who undergo therapy have a recidivism rate of less than 7 percent.
In terms of adult offenders, again, it’s difficult to point to the exact cause of child abuse. Conklin said he sees, and research also bears out, that childhood trauma is common in offenders, although not everyone who is abused grows up to abuse others.
“I think some of those early childhood traumas is some kind of contributing factor to that dysfunction,” he said.
He said drugs can contribute to abuse, but so do many other factors, including a lack of adult supervision that makes kids vulnerable.
“I try to look at the individual and not any kind of label,” Conklin said.
Resources and community
Montrose County’s child-serving agencies are hungry for dollars, but not for cooperation and other forms of support.
“We have more cases than resources in the community. Fortunately, we have really great resources and my staff has really great relationships with the service providers,” Holsinger said.
To get resources to better match with thecaseload, people need to reach out to those with access to the public purse, or those who have pull with private donors, she said.
“And try to bring a stronger voice to the Western Slope. The Front Range has services, but the West Slope is special. We need those politicians and those people who have the funding source, or can influence the funding source, to recognize that over here, we have a need that is unique,” said Holsinger.
In Montrose County, people who serve children’s needs have a well-functioning team, one that includes multiple judicial district workers and judges, Cook said.
“It really has been a team effort in Montrose County to try to combat these problems and I think that’s why we’re seeing some of the positive outcomes recently,” she said.
The public can be part of that team effort, by acting quickly to report suspected abuse.
Conklin, Cook and Holsinger all said people should not hesitate to report their suspicions.
Those calling CPS do not have to have all the information, nor do they have to ultimately be correct.
“The hairs rising on the back of your neck, or the birdie on your shoulder saying something isn’t right, we encourage everyone to make that call to the reporting line and give us the information,” Holsinger said. A round-the-clock, toll-free reporting line can be reached at 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1-844-264-5437).
“It’s important to call with any kind of nugget of concern and let us take that information and review, and take action when needed,” Holsinger said.
Listening to children is also paramount, Conklin said. When a child mentions something bad happening, it’s important not to dismiss it, but instead, to be mindful of helping the child explore those feelings and to disclose more details.
“There are data out there that indicate more times than not, there is some sort of truth in what they are saying,” Conklin said.
The caregivers’ reaction is also critical, he said. So is reporting child abuse, even when the person making the report is not sure. Even if abuse is not founded in the end, the disclosure may reveal something else a child needs help dealing with, Conklin said.
“I feel like this community is very fortunate to have so many people trying to do the best they can to combat these concerns and that we have a place for families to come and begin their healing story. We’re honored to provide this service,” he said.
Cook is also impressed with the services available here.
“The people working for the children’s best interest have created a community to do what is best for the kids,” she said.
“Kids are not a number. … In so many big cities, kids get lost in the system. In Montrose County, I think, we’re trying to combat that, with all of the people that are involved.”
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the senior writer for the Montrose Daily Press. Follow her on Twitter @kathMDP.