Cass County Child Advocates estimate there are about 60 ongoing child abuse cases in Cass County at any given point in time.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and Cass County officials who work with child abuse victims want the community to understand the gravity of the issue.
“It’s a horrific crime perpetrated against the most innocent of our citizens,” Cass County Sheriff Ed Schroder said.
Mystine Burgman, program director at Cass County Child Advocates, said child abuse affects the entire community.
“Nobody’s thriving; nobody’s succeeding if our children are in an environment that isn’t healthy and safe for them, ”Burgman said“ I think the best thing that we can do is help the people closest to us. ”
According to a release from Cass County Prosecutor Noah Schafer, child abuse encompasses physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and failure to provide necessary food or clothing to children.
An article on the Mayo Clinic’s website stated, “Any intentional harm or mistreatment to a child under 18 years old is considered child abuse.” The article defines each type of abuse detailed in Shafer’s release and adds medical abuse to the list. It also states that multiple forms of abuse can take place at once.
“As a community, it is important for all of us to be on the lookout for signs that children may be victims of abuse and speak up to help them,” Schafer said in the press release.
Signs of child abuse include unexplained physical injuries, self-harm, depression, anxiety, fear of particular adults or locations, inappropriate sexual behavior or language, frequent school absences and sudden changes in eating and sleeping patterns or school performance.
Some specific behavior changes listed in the release as symptoms of abuse included aggression, hostility, anger and unexplainable or unusual fear.
Burgman said substance abuse and mental health problems factor into as many as 80-90% of Cass County child abuse cases. While methamphetamine is the most prevalent drug, heroin, cocaine and prescription drug abuse are all common as well.
The lack of local inpatient substance abuse programs and domestic violence shelters compounds the problem, since parents must travel outside the county for those services. Burgman said people who are suffering from addiction or who are being abused themselves may not know where to take their children so they can seek help.
“We don’t have a domestic violence shelter locally. We do see domestic violence situations often, and it’s hard for parents with children to leave that situation if they don’t have anywhere safe to go, ”Burgman said. “It can definitely leave them in that unsafe situation when they would otherwise be able to get out.”
Organizations like the Cass County Domestic Violence Task Force, Four County and The Father’s House are very important for people struggling with addiction, mental health or domestic violence. However, the need for those services is overwhelming, and children living in abusive households do not have time to wait.
Indiana’s Department of Child Services reported 50 child fatalities were caused by abuse in 2020, according to Shafer’s press release.
Child abuse also causes lifelong problems for the people who survive it.
Sheriff Ed Schroder said his department works with the Local Coordinating Council, is on a child protective team with the Cass County Division of Family Resources and is on a fatality review team with several other agencies, so he sees the long-term effects the abuse has on children.
“It impacts the development of our youth and adolescents, and that often transcends into criminal, mental health and social interaction issues for some of the victims later on in life,” Schroder said. “It’s a far-reaching crime that has a long-reaching impact.”
Schafer said raising awareness and reducing child abuse throughout the county will take a two-pronged approach.
“By educating parents and empowering community members to know the warning signs of child abuse, and ensuring that parents have the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to care for their children, we can help prevent child abuse and neglect in the future,” the release stated.
Steps to prevent child abuse include nurturing children and letting them know they are loved, gaining knowledge about parenting and child development, learning parental resilience so frustration is not taken out on children, avoiding drug and alcohol abuse, and providing support for parents.
Burgman emphasized the importance of getting involved with children in the community and volunteering.
“One small thing can make a big difference to a child or a family,” she said. “If you have the opportunity to donate to a food drive or a clothing drive, just help out in the little ways that you can. It’s doesn’t have to be an extravagant gesture. Little things really help families in our community more than I think people realize. “