By Ashley Shuler
INDIANAPOLIS — Shortly after an elementary principal alerted deputies something might be wrong with a child who had been absent from school for a few days, the frightened 9-year-old boy was laying in the fetal position in the lobby of the Johnson County Sherriff’s Office.
The boy’s pale face was bruised, scratched and cut. His eyes were partially shut and droopy, strained with broken blood vessels. Dried blood and drainage was coming from his ears. His neck was branded with ligature marks. He was shaking.
When a deputy tried to speak to him that night in October, the boy was disoriented. He couldn’t talk clearly and cried out that he was hungry and asked for food, according to court documents.
The boy’s mother demonstrated to police how she had intentionally and repeatedly hit her son in the groin three or four times, causing swelling, the documents said. She indicated she had lost control and knew it was wrong, but that she did it anyways. She didn’t send him or his brother to school because of their visible injuries.
The boy’s mother, Krystle Nikole Case, 31, was recently charged with two felonies: neglect of a dependent and battery resulting in serious bodily injury to a child. A judge issued a no-contact order that will keep her from seeing her son, even if she is released during her case.
This story is one of nearly 27,000 confirmed child abuse or neglect cases in Indiana each year.
The number of Hoosier child abuse and neglect cases has risen consistently since 2011, according the Indiana Youth Institute’s annual KIDS COUNT in Indiana Data Book.
The report — which also gives data on homelessness, infant mortality, youth suicide and other topics — details how children are “surviving, not thriving” through 2015 statistics and year-to-year comparisons of the various challenges they face.
James Wide, deputy communications director for Indiana’s Department of Child Services, said although the number of child abuse reports are going up, it’s not for a bad reason. Wide attributes the increased number of reports to more cases being filed because of more awareness about child abuse issues, not necessarily because more incidents are occurring.
His office deals with all sorts of child welfare issues, including handling child support and protecting children from all types of abuse and neglect.
Before 2012, the state didn’t have a centralized child abuse and neglect hotline. Before the hotline, Wide said there were more than 300 numbers scattered across the state that weren’t always answered by a professional — or answered at all.
But the introduction of the Indiana Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline streamlined reporting. Anyone who calls 1-800-800-5556, any time, is connected to a trained family case manager to describe what they think might be going on with a child.
“We’re letting people know: If you see something, say something,” Wide said. “You don’t have to be a child abuse expert. If you’re not sure, if you don’t know, just call.”
In 2015, the department handled more than 202,000 reports through calls, emails, mail-in and faxes. That’s up from less than 200,000 reports in 2014, according to the new data report.
The phone number gets an average of 585 calls per business day and 206 per weekend, and the average caller spends about 13.5 minutes speaking with the trained family case manager on the phone, said the report.
When the hotline gets a call, the case manager takes down all of the information and comes up with a recommendation of whether the situation should be assessed. The report is then referred to the county’s local office, where they can make the final decision of whether to go and take a look at the situation. Most of the time, Wide said, they take the hotline’s recommendation.
There were nearly 27,000 confirmed cases of child abuse or neglect in Indiana in 2015, up about 1,000 from 2014.
The case workers are most likely to be called to help Indiana’s youngest children, ones that are less than a year old. Nearly half of all cases of child abuse and neglect involve infants and children under five.
Wide said one problem with prevention and reporting child abuse is that many adults don’t apply the same attitude they should when reporting other possible crimes, like seeing someone suspicious walking at night.
“When you see a parent or an adult seeming really aggressive with a child in the grocery store, you say, ‘Oh, that’s not my issue,’ and just walk by,” Wide said. “That could be your chance to intervene and stop it. It could’ve been that mom was upset that she told Johnny to stop taking the cap off the toothpaste in the store six times. That’s nothing. We move on. But what if it’s not? What if it’s something?”
Aside from more awareness of how to report, Wide also attributes the rise in numbers to the state’s drug wave, from opioid to heroin addiction. He said parents who use drugs don’t have their minds on the safety of their child.
“The power of the drugs these adults are on really overwhelms their lives,” he said. “They do whatever the drugs tell them to. They think, ‘Instead of getting diapers for my child, I’ll clean them with a paper towel. I could use that extra money from drugs.’”
More than 1 out of every 8 Hoosier children have lived with someone who had a drug or alcohol problem, and more than half of kids removed from a home by Indiana’s Department of Child Services in 2016 were removed due to parental drug or alcohol abuse.
Sharon Pierce, president and CEO of The Villages, Indiana’s largest nonprofit child and family services agency, said her organization has seen a “tsunami” of children coming into the foster care system because of parents addicted to drugs.
“It’s daunting to see how bad it’s impacting families and creating a generation of parents that seem unable to care for their children,” Pierce said.
She said the average age of children coming into The Villages foster and adoption system is getting lower because of the drug epidemic. In 2012, the average age of a child in their care was was 9 years old. In 2015, it was 6.
“That’s heartbreaking because what we know about brain development, we know those years are so important for a child’s bonding and attachment,” she said. “And not just to the parents, but really, the human race.”
Inside The Villages building — before families even make it to the point of being reported or getting involved in the foster system — Prevent Child Abuse Indiana tries to stop child abuse before it happens.
Sandy Runkle, program director for Indiana’s division of Prevent Child Abuse America, is one of five trainers that travel around and teach more than 125 trainings about preventing child abuse around the state each year, including a program that educates men soon to be released from prison on fatherhood.
Runkle’s organization has prevention councils that serve 44 of Indiana’s 92 counties. The councils are largely run by volunteers that try to collaborate and combine resources to make a bigger impact.
“I worked in Child Protective Services when I started out in my career,” Runkle said. “So when you do that, very often, you want to hit the prevention side before it even gets to that point.”
Pierce said the best way to stop child abuse is to understand “the power of one” — that one person can help a child by caring for them, even in a small way.
Pinwheels line the lawn in front of The Villages building, which also houses the Prevent Child Abuse office. The county-wide councils put out pinwheels during National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April, each symbolizing something positive they’d wish for a child. Photo provided by Sandy Runkle, Prevent Child Abuse Indiana
“All of us are the caregivers of these children. They are entrusted in all of us,” she said. “What are our action opportunities to fix their situations? What can we as individuals and as neighbors do to invest in a child or a family that really is struggling? What can we do to help make the future brighter for the children in their care?”
In Indiana, any person who has a reason to believe a child is a victim of abuse or neglect is required to report. Failing to report is a crime punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 1-800-800-5556 or local law enforcement.
Ashley Shuler is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.