Orange County leaders want action on child abuse
Soaring rates of child abuse in Orange County are driving officials to investigate the reasons behind the violence and expand services to at-risk families, leaders announced Tuesday.
The county had more than 13,800 reports of child abuse last year — the second-highest in the state, though it ranks only fifth in overall population. In the first three months of this year, eight children have died of suspected abuse or neglect, three of those believed to be homicides at the hands of their caregivers.
"Something has got to happen in this community," said longtime child-welfare advocate Dick Batchelor at a news conference releasing the latest statistics. "We can't have that many children being abused. We can't have that many children being killed."
State officials said statistics for other Central Florida counties were not immediately available.
Mayor Teresa Jacobs called for the Orange County Domestic Violence Commission, launched in 2013, to expand its focus to investigate child abuse. Its previous work, she noted, already has led to scores of recommendations and proposed legislation now being considered by lawmakers. Because the two problems often intersect, she said, it made sense to combine the effort. Several speakers agreed.
"As a judge, I saw this in domestic-violence court far too often," said Orange-Osceola Circuit Court Judge Alice Blackwell, who co-chairs the commission with Batchelor. "Children may be victimized or threatened as a way of punishing and controlling the adult victim of domestic violence. And children may be injured unintentionally when acts of violence occur in their presence."
One mother, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said her now-ex-husband beat and controlled her for five years before she managed to escape. The final straw, the 25-year-old said, was when her batterer turned his rage on their son, days before the toddler's second birthday.
"He left bruises all over his little body," she said. "After the abuse, my son actually started showing a lot of anger. He wouldn't even talk about his dad. He would say, 'He's not my father.'"
The boy and his older sister are now in treatment for their trauma.
Experts noted that even children who are not directly injured by the violence can have long-term problems.
"Studies have found that children who witness domestic violence tend to become more aggressive and fearful," Blackwell said. "They often suffer anxiety, depression and other trauma-related symptoms."
The aftermath very often extends into adulthood. William D'Aiuto, who leads the Central Florida region for the state's Department of Children and Families, said adult survivors are more likely than their peers to become addicted to drugs and alcohol, end up in prison or homeless and suffer mental illness rooted in trauma.
To counter the problem, Jacobs said all residents need to report suspected abuse.
"I grew up in a time when child abuse was somebody else's business. You didn't get involved," Jacobs said. "But I am calling on every citizen in Orange County … to make it your mission to get involved. If you see it, you have an obligation to report it. This problem hurts everyone who looks the other way."
Failure to report such abuse to the state hotline (1-800-962-2873) or law-enforcement became a felony in Florida in 2012.
Although the leaders didn't outline how they plan to tackle the issue — that will be the work of the commission — one factor likely to be scrutinized is a lack of affordable day care in a community where nearly half of families live near the federal poverty line.
Marie Martinez, operations manager of Orlando's Howard Phillips Center for Children & Families, where child-abuse victims are treated and counseled, noted that the county no longer has a "crisis nursery" as it did until 2009. There, overwhelmed parents could bring their children for a short respite — no questions asked.
Similarly, there is no longer any free child care available in the county, and the waiting list for subsidized care is at 7,000 names and growing, she said.
"What's happening is that parents are no longer taking their kids to child care, and especially for our families living in motels, that can be a pressure cooker," Martinez said. "You've got everybody living in one room, parents who are trying to work a minimum-wage job for as many hours as they can get, maybe getting very little sleep, and one child is crying and another is sick and a third is hungry. Those parents need some release valve, and those children need a safe haven."
The commission is supposed to hold its initial meeting late this month. Specifics have not been announced.