Child abuse; it’s closer than you think

By Deanna Wakkinen, I-O Reporter

This summer has been one of deep sadness with events around the world and close to home of great tragedy.

In the past three months there have been multiple instances of physically abuse to infants and toddlers caused from not strangers, but friends and family in their own homes.

The case that made headlines first this summer was that of a two-year-old girl who suffered injuries at the hand of her mother’s boyfriend.

The second was just weeks ago when a 23-year-old man shook the 17-month-old daughter of his girlfriend. As if you hadn’t heard enough of it, the latest case was that of a two month old girl with Down syndrome who had broken ribs and a broken leg at the hands of her own father who was frustrated with the infant for crying.


According to a report in the Great Falls Tribune, there have been six people, since June 15, in Cascade County that have been charged with felony offenses for endangering children. All six children were under the age of three.


Monica Huffman, child advocate for Hi-Line Help for Abused Spouses (HLHAS) tells the I-O, “We have not seen the level of severity as they have in Cascade County, not that it (abuse) isn’t happening here.” She also commented that in her 12 years working with domestic violence, it is the worst she has ever seen in publicized cases.

Huffman and HLHAS see the cases that involve domestic violence within the household and Huffman commented that one out of every three homes seeing spouse abuse are also seeing abuse to the children, according to the national average. She commented, “We aren’t sitting still.” She continued by adding she has seen “some of the busiest quarters we’ve ever had. HLHAS is seeing around three to four cases a week and covers a six county area. This area includes Teton, Toole, Liberty, Glacier, Chouteau and Pondera counties.

Kiersta Sullivan, director of CASA in Pondera, Glacier, Toole and Teton counties, commented that the number of new cases in 2010 was 16 and the number so far for 2011 is already at 24.

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates who are appointed by the court system to advocate for children who have been removed from their homes. Children are appointed both a CASA volunteer and a lawyer. Sullivan comments that the difference is that the lawyer works for the wishes of the child and CASA works for the best interest of the child.

Sullivan noted that the majority of cases involve parents with alcohol and substance abuse as well as untreated mental illness.

The degree of abuse ranges from neglect in providing a safe home and food to horrendous sexual abuse. Physical abuse is frequent but seen more frequently is also medical neglect, often common when a child has a diagnosed but untreated mental illness.

When asked what could be to blame for the caseload increase, Huffman and Sullivan both commented on the economy crunch.

Sullivan finds it hard to believe the two are connected in our area but Huffman commented there is still the fear of it. Huffman also gave credit to long cold months and other extreme weather that can effect and irritate those who are easily agitated.

In light of these tragedies it can help to know the effects of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). It is important to pass this knowledge onto all you leave your children with and extremely important to see the symptoms associated with SBS.

SBS is also known as abusive head trauma, shaken impact syndrome, inflicted head injury and infant whiplash syndrome. It is a serious brain injury that occurs when an infant or toddler is forcefully shaken. SBS destroys a child’s brain cells and prevents the brain from getting enough oxygen. SBS can result in permanent brain damage or death.

Symptoms of SBS include extreme irritability, difficulty staying awake, breathing problems, poor eating, tremors, vomiting, pale or bluish skin, seizures, paralysis and coma. Other injuries that may go unnoticed include bleeding in the brain and eye, damage to the spinal cord and neck, and fractures of the ribs, skull and bones. Getting medical help after you believe your child has been shaken is crucial to preventing future health problems or death.

Health professionals are required to report all suspected cases of child abuse to state authorities.

For parents and caregivers, factors can vary and come unexpectedly to cause them to shake a child. Factors that increase the risk include stress, domestic violence, alcoholism or other forms of substance abuse, unstable family situations, depression and unrealistic expectations of babies.

About half of all children affected by SBS die. Survivors of shaken baby syndrome may require lifelong medical care for conditions such as partial or total blindness, hearing loss, developmental delays or learning problems, seizure disorders and cerebral palsy.

Ways to help prevent child abuse include being a nurturing parent, helping a friend or neighbor, helping yourself by taking a time out, by learning what to do when your baby won’t stop crying and by reporting any suspected abuse or neglect. Sullivan urges those who suspect child abuse to call the toll free hotline, even 10 times a day. She says, “They (children) can’t call, it’s your responsibility as an adult.”

The Child and Family Services Division is a part of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. Their mission is keeping children safe and families strong. DFS has a 24/7 toll free abuse hotline. They assess the level of risk to children and prioritize reports of abuse, neglect and abandonment. Their Centralized Intake toll free number is 866-820-5437. Social workers investigate reports and help parents to find solutions to problems that may interfere with their children’s safety. If the parents need, they can get help with an in-home service, a parenting education classes, modeling skills for parents and have supervised visitations.

CASA is in desperate need of volunteers. They currently have 13 people offering their services with three more in training. To become an advocate for children you must have a background check, be fingerprinted, complete 30 hours of training and have 12 hours of continued education annually. Each volunteer works 16-20 hours monthly per child.

DFS is also in need of foster parents and those looking to adopt. Call Child and Family Services in Conrad at 278-5142 or call the toll free hotline for more information.