Bryan County officials have seen an increase in reported cases of child abuse this year. And, they say, it could be a good thing.
It’s the reporting which counselors and law enforcement see as a positive thing. Word is getting out to parents, teachers and others in close contact with children who may be at risk of sexual and physical assaults, abuse or neglect.
“I think we are having more awareness and education,” said Kelly Harris, Director of ABC House, a children’s advocacy center in Durant. “It’s teamwork within our community. For example, teachers are more informed about child abuse and how to report it.”
The ABC House serves Atoka, Bryan and Coal counties. It is one of 21 such centers across Oklahoma and has been in operation since 2000. Harris has been the new director of ABC House since January.
For the first half of this year, Harris reported 140 children being served. Those numbers are up from 91 in the previous six months. Ongoing public awareness campaigns could be helping people to recognize the signs of an assault.
“A rise in the level of abuse being recorded does not necessarily mean a rise in the level of abuse being perpetrated,” Harris stated. “It merely means that more abuse is coming to the attention of the authorities.”
She cites improved training for professionals and awareness programs aimed at children, as well as high profile abuse cases in the news. All of it is leading to more cases being reported, and fewer victims falling through the cracks.
“One voice at a time will make a difference,” said Harris. “Being that one adult that a child can believe in, that is what it takes.”
The local child advocacy center is one of only two in Oklahoma which is operated under the umbrella of their local district attorney. Harris credits District 19 District Attorney Emily Redman and Assistant District Attorney Julie Naifeh for having a “heart and compassion” for children.
The ABC House is a one-stop collaboration where child victims of assault, abuse and neglect can come with their families for the intake process. The home, in an undisclosed location of a Durant residential neighborhood, is filled with toys and is designed to feel like an actual home.
A child at the ABC House can be interviewed by specially trained authorities and examined by nurses, eliminating the more traumatic method of police interview followed by a hospital visit.
“It’s less stress for children, which is extremely important in a situation where they may have been abused,” Redman said.
The state Department of Human Services maintains a 24-hour child abuse and neglect hotline at (800) 522-3511. Anyone suspecting a child is being abused or neglected has a legal responsibility to report such abuse, Harris said.