Local groups work to raise awareness of child abuse in Summit County community
While reports of abuse are down, experts warn cases are likely up
The past year has been difficult for many, but as the calendar turns over to April, local advocacy groups are asking community members to turn their attention to ensuring the well-being of children in the county.
On March 23, the Summit Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution proclaiming April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, part of a nationwide effort to raise awareness about the importance of communities working together to prevent child abuse and neglect.
“I think the message to everyone is: It’s OK to ask about what’s going on with families right now and to really inquire with kids about how they’re doing,” said Nicole Bortot, Child and Adult Services manager with Summit County. “… More than ever, we need to come together as a community with our collaborative partners and support kids in a way that we have never been asked to before. I think the need is just so high.”
Child abuse reports are actually down over the past year. There were 287 referrals to CASA of the Continental Divide, a nonprofit that provides volunteer advocates to serve the best interests of a child in civil court matters, in 2019 in Summit County. That compares with 142 in 2020. But Karen Kaminski, the group’s executive director, said there’s good reason to believe the actual number of child abuse and neglect cases in the community is much higher.
“It’s been impacted by COVID because children aren’t in schools and aren’t participating in sports, and the majority of mandatory reporters are teachers and coaches,” Kaminski said. “It has declined this year quite significantly from prior years. So the belief … is that once kids get back in school that the workload is going to significantly increase because there’s going to be more referrals.”
Kaminski also noted that a large percentage of Summit County’s workforce doesn’t live in the county and that family struggles, including issues of child abuse or neglect, might not be readily visible to onlookers.
“They’ve been saying that throughout COVID, ‘Don’t assume your neighbor is fine,’” Kaminski said. “… We know that a lot of (the workforce) commute in. A lot of them are invisible to us — to the second-homeowner people and the tourists. And we need to pay attention to the fact that they’re the ones that are struggling the most.”
Bortot said the county’s experience has mirrored that of CASA’s over the past year. The department typically deals with more than 250 child welfare cases a year but received fewer than 200 last year.
She also emphasized that with increased stressors hitting the community as a result of COVID-19, like housing insecurity and a lack of sufficient child care options, it is unlikely that there was any decline in child abuse or neglect.
“Given what we’ve seen with COVID, the lack of frequency that kids and families have had contact with others in general, I would imagine that we have had much less reported this past year,” Bortot said. “Domestic violence is up, mental health concerns are up, and yet child abuse and neglect reports are down. So that’s obviously contradictory.”
What has been reported has troubled some officials. The Treetop Child Advocacy Center saw a dramatic increase in cases last year, according to Executive Director Krista Burdick. The center provides a safe space for children who are victims of sexual assault, or who might have been traumatized by witnessing another crime, to speak with law enforcement officials and counselors. It projects about 40 cases a year across the four-county 5th Judicial District, which includes Summit, but handled 100 in 2020.
Burdick said mental health concerns among children were a growing issue and that one in three children who made their way through the center last year expressed some form of suicidal or self-harm ideation.
“As a community, we’ve all been through so much in the last year, and I think our children have just carried a lot of that burden,” Burdick said. “I’m so grateful that we are here to ensure we can provide that safety net to make sure they do have services and supports. It’s scary. … Seeing the little ones in our community suffering through that has been difficult.
“We are a small, tight-knit community, and I think the best thing the community can do to help combat child abuse locally is if you see something, say something. For every child we see at Treetop, there are three more that continue to suffer in silence.”
Leaders in the child protective fields are urging community members to be extra vigilant with regard to potential signs of child abuse and neglect. Among notable “red flags” that could point to potential abuse are physical clues like bruises, malnutrition or being dressed inadequately for winter as well as social signs like the child frequently missing or performing poorly in school, pulling out of groups or showing noticeable changes in behavior.
If someone notices possible signs of child abuse or neglect, Kaminski said they can choose to reach out to the family directly to check in depending on their comfort level. Otherwise, officials said signs of child abuse should be reported to the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 844-264-5437 or to 911 in more immediate and severe circumstances.
But prevention is the much more attractive option. Officials emphasized the need for community partners to come together to work on more holistic preventative measures and provide solutions to root causes behind child abuse, like better access to mental health support for children and parents as well as other basic needs like housing, food, child care and more.
Leaders in the field said protecting the county’s children requires organizations across Summit collaborating, and they lauded groups already helping to fill needs, including the Family & Intercultural Resource Center, Building Hope Summit County, Summit Advocates for Victims of Assault, the Summit County SMART Team and others.
But it’s also up to the community at large to take the time to engage with the children in their lives and make sure they’re doing OK.
“Keep listening, keep asking,” Bortot said. “Even when we feel like we’re not getting anywhere, just keep trying because the need is there. … We can still keep our eyes open for these kids and these families that need so much support right now. Here we are a year after the pandemic started, and just in terms of the well-being of kids and families, we’re not caught up yet. It’s going to take some time, and we just need to keep trying to build families up.”
If you see something, say something
Signs of child abuse should be reported to the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 844-264-5437 or to 911 in more immediate and severe circumstances.
Dine out for a cause
Dawn Gundersen, executive assistant at CASA, said several private businesses have stepped up to support the nonprofit by offering donations based on sales in April, including The Crown, Broken Compass Brewing, Angry James Brewery, Sauce on the Blue and Breckenridge Ale House.
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