The rise in child abuse cases may not be bad news. A DFACS employee reminded the group at the State of the Community presentation, this means there are more case being reported so now they can take action. Previously it had gone unreported.
At the Our Family Connections’ state of the community presentation December 9th, social agencies, non-profits, judicial and elected officials heard mostly glum figures regarding the conditions for children in Pickens County.
The reports showed the number of children living in poverty and families in poverty here had not improved despite low employment rates and that child abuse numbers rose in the latest available figures.
While some progress has been with child neglect, one speaker at the Family Connections meeting said Pickens has a long ways to go with child abuse.
Jacque Elwarner, the Family Connection coordinator, said, “I wish we had some different numbers.”
At the center of the concern were figures purporting that instances of “substantiated child abuse” in Pickens was at 9.5 cases per 1,000 children during 2014. This 9.5 number is up considerably from 5.9 cases per 1,000 in Pickens County during 2010 (the starting point of the data presented). It was also much higher than the 3.6 cases per 1,000 statewide during the same year.
Elwarner told the assembled crowd of advocates for children that, basically we have doubled the cases of child abuse. [See report for 2014.]
Donna Torres, Chair of the Family Connection board, said, “Trends are not going in the direction we want to be going. The question is what are we going to do about it?”
She noted that much of the efforts are tied to root problems, such as drug and alcohol use.
While the numbers looked worse, Brandi Stargel, a Social Services Case Manager for Pickens DFACS, said the dire assessment is missing the point: There isn’t necessarily more child abuse here, it’s that more is being reported – a view that makes higher number an improvement for the county.
“The numbers appear to have doubled,” she said. “I do not believe that is what I am seeing with cases.”
It’s that people are more aware and there is more reporting of child abuse, not an increase in incidents, Stargel told the group.
“There is more reporting and we are able to do something about it,” she said. She noted there is more education on what people need to look for and easier ways to report suspicions of child abuse anonymously.
Following her, however, Andrea Gibby of the Appalachian Children’s Center, said there may be better reporting, but she believes Pickens County still has a long ways to go. She said there are fewer cases of child abuse reported in Pickens than in some surrounding counties with similar sized populations, which leads her to believe that it’s still under-reported here.
“We have a long way to go,” she said. Particularly with educating people to notice when a child may be behaving differently and report it; to make a call “when something is just not right.”
“Think about how small a community we are and how much abuse we have,” she said. “We have a long ways to go.”
In addition to the abuse figures, the meeting featured other speakers and statistics on families showing some improvements and other areas of concern.
• Even though the county has a very low unemployment rate, families and children here are not moving out of poverty. In fact, two graphs showed that more families and children in Pickens County are considered in poverty now than in 2009 and 2010. Based on the displays at the meeting, the number of people in poverty rose sharply in 2010 and 2011, leveled off in 2012 and improved very slightly in 2013.
• The schools here saw two positive figures. First is the very enviable statistic showing the graduation rate here in 2015 was 91 percent. This was considerably higher than the state rate of 79 percent. Secondly Pickens was ranked 34th out of 159 counties for having the least number of students who miss more than 15 days of schools.
• In comments during the meeting, school board member Peggy Andrews noted that they see the effects of the persistent poverty in the school with 53 percent of all students receiving either free or reduced price lunches by meeting federal guidelines on income.
Andrews and county commission chairman Rob Jones both addressed how Pickens has two distinct income levels, with Pickens being a generally low income area that is also home to a handful of high income communities.
Jones said Pickens is one of 18 “tier 4” counties in Georgia, meaning we are considered among the 18th richest, but that is skewed because of a couple of high income areas that throw off the averages.
“This limits us in the grants and state help we qualify for,” he said.
Andrews said this high average income level impacts the schools as they are required to give “equalization” money to other systems. “We are considered a rich county,” she said. “It is really a thorn in my side that Gwinnett is on the list [of counties that receive money in equalization]. I don’t mind South Georgia [being there] but it really rubs me raw for metro counties.”
Every December, Family Connections presents their state of the community at their regular meeting. The “Our Family Connection collaborative serves as the local decision-making body, bringing community partners together to develop, implement, and evaluate plans that address the serious challenges facing Georgia’s children and families.”