Just as Kentucky began its annual recognition of Child Abuse Prevention Month, leaders in the commonwealth learned a disheartening fact — for the third year in a row, the state has the highest rates of child abuse in the country.
On March 31, Norton Children’s Hospital announced that, according to the US Department of Health & Human Services Children’s Bureau “Child Maltreatment 2019” report, Kentucky outranks the rest of the country for the third year in a row.
Especially in light of these disheartening statistics, local officials such as Big Sandy Child Advocacy Center (Judi’s Place for Kids) Executive Director Pamela Taylor are working to raise awareness of and prevent child abuse, as well as deal with the aftermath of cases of abuse.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau “Child Maltreatment 2019” report, which was released this year, Kentucky had 20,000 abuse and neglect cases, meaning about 20 out of every 1,000 children in the commonwealth experienced some type of child maltreatment. By comparison, the second-highest state (West Virginia) had a rate of 18.7 instances of abuse per 1,000 kids. The US average is 8.9.
According to Taylor, she has been working with the child advocacy center for approximately 14 years and prior to that, Taylor said she was at the Department for Protective and Permanency Social Services for 10 years, giving her more than 20 plus years in dealing with child abuse cases.
"My whole career has been working with children in need, who have been abused," Taylor said.
Taylor said, most of the time, when people think of the term "child abuse," they tend to think of a child getting beaten or sexually abused. However, although those are the most common, Taylor added that child abuse can consist of mental abuse as well as neglect.
"There's so much that falls under neglect such as witnessing domestic violence, that's a high indicator," Taylor said. "Witness to drug use, that falls under neglect as well. So neglect is kind of a catch all for everything else that is associated with child abuse."
Taylor said that, oftentimes, child abuse can seem as a "never-ending" cycle due the amount of trauma which can be caused to a child, who then often turns around and causes the same amount of hurt when they become older.
"I've been in this field long enough to have seen kids I did investigations on, I'm now seeing their grandkids at the center," Taylor said. "So it's that cycle of abuse and neglect, with drugs playing a huge part in the rise of the number of cases."
During her experiences, according to Taylor, when someone is on drugs, they aren't often themselves and that can lead to the physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect, as intoxicated parents often don’t care who is watching their child.. Taylor said in those types of situations, it doesn't necessarily mean it’s the parents causing the abuse, but they'll often allow other people to watch them, despite not knowing them well.
Taylor said that she believes the state's rankings regarding child abuse stem from a number of things.
For one, she said, the state needs to invest more funding into child abuse prevention.
"More money needs to be invested in child abuse prevention and I think people need to be made more aware that it is a problem in our area," Taylor said. "It can happen in your higher economic places, your lower economic places, it happens across all stratospheres."
According to Taylor, the state's — and more specifically Eastern Kentucky's — poverty level, coupled with its unemployment rates due to the closure of many coal mines, have contributed to more drug use, which in turn has led to more problems with mental illness.
"We're really kind of isolated here, it's getting better, but our families are isolated and it sets up an ideal situation for a perpetrator," Taylor said. "In this area, things that happen in the family, tend to stay in the family. We don't talk about it or tell people about it and kids are taught that. I've had so many kids that I've been interviewing tell me that a family member has told them 'to not talk about that.'"
In some cases, according to Taylor, family members can be aware of abuse, but not report it. By state law in Kentucky, everyone is a mandated reporter. If anyone suspects a child is being abused, Taylor said they need to report it. Individuals can visit, prd.webapps.chfs.ky.gov/reportabuse/, and make a report online where they can remain anonymous.
"You don't have to even know the abuse is going on. As long as you have good reason to suspect that the abuse is going on, call and report it," Taylor said.
Over the last year, COVID-19 has kept many people home and children outside of school, something of which Taylor said she believes has helped also contribute to the state and area's child abuse cases. Taylor said she believes that COVID-19 has worsened the problem, due to the lack of eyes being kept on the children.
“(Before the pandemic) kids were in school, kids were at parks and in stores ... people saw them," Taylor said. "Now, over the last year, most of them have been shut inside the house. 85 to 90 percent of abuse cases come from a caregiver.
"And now the kids are shut in the house, with that person," she added.
According to the "Child Maltreatment 2019" report, experts are concerned the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a spike in child abuse numbers for 2020. Experts said that, the pandemic left families faced with financial, emotional and other stresses — combined with spending long periods of time isolated at home with a lack of structure and support. These stressors can lead to potentially dangerous situations.
“Research has found that when families are stressed, children are at an increased risk of being abused,” said Kelly L. Dauk, M.D., chair, Norton Children’s Hospital Child Abuse Task Force and pediatrician with Norton Children’s Inpatient Care, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine. “Caregivers must take care of themselves physically and emotionally, and ask for help if they are struggling. Maintaining connections with friends, family and others in the community is important. It takes support from the whole community to stop child abuse. We all have a responsibility help those who are struggling and report concerns for child safety and well-being.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following tips on how to support your family during times of high stress:
• Engage your children in constructive activities. Bored or frustrated children are more likely to act out.
• Help children with their fears. Kids who are old enough to follow the news may be afraid. You can acknowledge the fear and discuss all the things you are doing to stay healthy, such as washing hands, wearing masks and staying home to avoid germs.
• Know when not to respond. As long as your child isn't doing something dangerous and gets plenty of attention for good behavior, ignoring bad behavior can be an effective way of stopping it.
• Catch them being good. Children need to know when they do something bad — and when they do something good. Notice good behaviors and point them out, praising success and good tries.
• Give them your attention. The most powerful tool for effective discipline is attention, which reinforces good behaviors and discourages others. When parents are trying to work at home, this can be particularly challenging. Clear communication and setting expectations can help, particularly with older children.
During its fiscal year for 2019, Taylor said that Judi's Place saw 257 kids and for the fiscal year of 2020, during the pandemic, the center saw 230 kids for interviews and medical exams. So far through the 2021 fiscal year, Taylor added that, during the first few months of 2021, the center has seen nearly as many cases as it saw throughout all of last year.
"I think we're seeing a rise in more reports now," Taylor said. "The ones we did receive during the pandemic were pretty severe."
Taylor said that Judi's Place has been seeing a rise in child fatalities, although not a large increase. However, Taylor did add that during her first 10 years, she probably did four child fatality cases, but, in the last year, Judi's Place has worked on the same number.
According to Taylor, there is also a common misconception about human trafficking. When a person hears about a human trafficking case, they often envision a child getting shoved into a van, take across state lines and sold somewhere. That's not what the center has been seeing, as she said Judi's place has been seeing a lot of children being traded.
"We're seeing a lot of kids be traded for drugs, rentmor just money in general," Taylor said. "And usually, it's not a stranger doing it to them. It's usually family member or a close family friend.
"It's a trade-off and the child is the one who suffers," she added.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. Learn other prevention tips and how to identify abuse at, DontHurtChildren.com.
In Kentucky, the number to call to report suspected child abuse is (877) KY-SAFE1 (597-2331). The National Child Abuse Hotline, (800) 4-A-CHILD (422-4453), offers professional crisis counselors who can provide intervention, information and referrals to emergency, social service and support resources. Calls are confidential. In Kentucky, everyone is mandated to report a reasonable suspicion that maltreatment has occurred.