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The scary rise of child abuse in Becker County

Child abuse

The files in Becker County District Court would bring tears to your eyes:

A 1½-year-old Waubun girl -- picked up by the hair, thrown on the bed and hit in the face. They called it malicious punishment of a child.

A Detroit Lakes boy --assaulted in a domestic abuse case -- grabbed by the arm, hit in the face, then placed in a headlock where he was choked so hard that he couldn't breath for 20-30 seconds.

Only days later, another Detroit Lakes boy -- dragged across the living room, thrown on the bed, his pants taken down and spanked so hard that it left severe bruising.

Becker County child protection worker Katie Geiser says there have been a lot of heartbreaking cases lately.

"We'll get called to the emergency room where we see these awful, horrendous injuries where these children have broken bones, fractured skulls, thing like that," said Geiser. "And they're just cute, innocent little kids and you can't make sense of it."

They say child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime, and in Becker County those shadows seem to be popping up from every corner.

The number of child abuse cases seen locally is jumping dramatically, but why?

"That's the million dollar question," said Becker County Attorney Mike Fritz, who says since 2008 the child abuse caseload in the court system has increased by 195 percent, from 2008 when there were 22 cases to 65 in 2011.

That's not counting the incidents that happen on that part of the White Earth Indian Reservation that includes Becker County, as those cases were absorbed by the tribe in 2007.

"If we were to count those back in, the case load would be much higher," said Fritz, adding that reservation cases roughly doubled their numbers in 2007.

"But still -- 65? That means we're generating more than one a week that require court action, and that's disturbing," Fritz said.

So what is behind the increase?

Some theorize that better communication within local agencies such as law enforcement and social services combined with stricter laws may account for the increase, but according to Nancy Nelson, director of Becker County Human Services, that theory can be tossed right out the window.

"Because it isn't just that we're seeing an increase in the amount of cases, but the severity of abuse we're seeing is also increasing," said Nelson. "They're living in worse conditions and having worse things happen to them."

Human services is currently working with or investigating 356 families or 645 children in Becker County for abuse issues.

That's way up from last year's number of 232 investigation-assessment cases.

Of last year's cases, 60 percent were allegations of neglect, 23 percent physical abuse, 9 percent emotional harm, and 6 percent allegations of sexual abuse.

"There are more of what we call 'the deep end' cases, where they really have more needs than just 'hey, I got angry and slapped my child' kind of a thing," said Nelson.

And although much of Becker County has been able to escape the real depths of the recession, could financial strain be a culprit in some homes?

"There are studies that show abuse increases as poverty does," said Nelson. "But I just don't know -- I don't know what's going on."

According to Nelson, substance abuse is involved in 61 percent of the cases, and Fritz added that meth use has began to rise again in the county after a decline in the past few years.

Whatever the reason, the problem isn't being taken lightly by those charged with dealing with it.

Becker County commissioners recently approved more funding for Human Services to hire an additional social worker in child protection.

They've also hired more public health nurses through a federal grant from Family Nurse Partnership, which sends nurses into the homes of first-time mothers who might be at high risk of abuse, whether due to poverty, a history of abuse or chemical dependency problems.

They're also trying to recruit more people willing to be foster parents, as Nelson says the 29 currently in Becker County are barely cutting it.

"What we could also really use are drivers," said Nelson. "A lot of times foster parents have children with a lot of needs, whether it's medical or other, and so a big need of ours right now is to have people who will volunteer to help them in being a driver to those things."

But as critical as foster care is to abused and neglected children, Fritz says a push by the federal government now has state and local agencies doing everything possible to either make the stays in foster homes shorter or make them permanent.

"Studies show that children need permanency," said Fritz, "so that they know where they're at, to know they're loved and that it's permanent, and they don't have to wonder if they'll be shipped from foster home to foster home or if they'll be going back to their parents."

Federal and state regulations have translated into more leeway for courts to terminate parental rights now, which mean parents lose any and all rights to their children forever.

It's a serious decision for authorities to make, but Fritz says they now have a new set of guidelines to follow, which require parents guilty of abuse or neglect to "get their act together" in a timely manner once their children are taken out of the home.

Those parents now only get six months to a year to get clean and fulfill all of the requirements set forth by the county, whether it be tackling chemical dependency, taking parenting classes or other corrective actions.

It is the county's obligation to assist them during this process, as the ultimate goal is to rehabilitate the parents and keep families together.

"But if they don't do anything and continue to use drugs, or are just not in a position to be a fit parent, we've got to do what's best for the child -- not what's best for the parent," said Fritz, who stresses that child protection is the No. 1 priority in his office.

"This is the most important job we have," said Fritz emphatically, "You cannot neglect them; you cannot continually mess up and put them at risk. You have to give them their basic human rights."

Fritz is also part of a community group called the Becker County KARE council, which stands for Kids Are the Responsibility of Everyone, which was once called the Becker County Child Abuse Prevention Council.

It's a community-led organization designed to essentially rally the troops throughout the community to support those who are determined to reduce child abuse.

"Our mission is to get to parents before they reach that critical stage -- before the county has to step in," said Karen Shawstad, KARE chairman and abuse survivor.

They do this by working hand-in-hand with the crisis center, child protective services and other area organizations to get resources out to parents that help them find their family strength and build on it.

They dole out baby blankets and informational magnets; they work hand-in-hand with the crisis center, child protective services and other area organizations tackling child abuse.

They also provide funds to family-friendly events around the community, and have most recently agreed to sponsor something called a No Use for Child Abuse rally, which is set for next week at M State in Detroit Lakes.

Mayor Matt Brenk will be there with a proclamation declaring April "Child Abuse Prevention Month" and calling upon members of the community to help prevent the problem that continues its scary growth in the area.

Police Chief Tim Eggebraaten, Mary's Place Director Becky Aaland and many other community leaders will be on hand as various abuse survivors tell their dark, but ultimately triumphant stories.

Their hope is that by shining a very bright light on the problem, the shadows will slowly begin to disappear.

The rally takes place on Thursday, April 19 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at M State, room C101.