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All in the Family 

More children in Spokane County are being abused and neglected. But some families have managed to break the cycle

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To the children who enter this room, it seems safe enough. Crayon drawings of flowers and happy suns hang on the wall. A tiny barn in a bucket is filled with plastic giraffes, dogs, elephants and dinosaurs. A brown rocking chair sits in the corner. The children might not notice the microphones embedded in the walls, the fisheye cameras hanging in the corners or the one-way mirror the police peer through.

The little boy or girl will sit on top of blue carpeted steps, cut and modified to fit this room, while Karen Winston, who looks like she could be a grandma, asks them questions. And then they tell her terrible, sickening stories.

“I’ve heard all kinds of things,” says Winston, forensic interviewer for Partners with Families and Children. “‘He grabbed me by the neck and choked me.’ ‘He hit me.’ ‘He punched me in the stomach.’ ‘He put his mouth on my privates.’”

Sometimes the kids will withdraw, or they’ll cry and curl up into a ball. She tries to make it easier for them. Do you want to whisper it to me? she might ask. Can you tell me just one thing that happened? Would it be easier to write it down? She never forces them to talk.

Just a few rooms away, nurse practitioner Teresa Forshag examines and photographs any physical wounds. She’s seen bruises and belt marks and broken bones. She’s seen blows to tiny heads from big, adult fists. She’s seen sexually transmitted diseases in children. Just this year, she’s seen cigarette burns on genitals and burns on children dipped in scalding water as a punishment for potty training messes. “We’ve had some fatalities this year,” Forshag says. “Fatalities due to physical abuse.”

Last year, more than 10,000 children in Spokane County were referred to Child Protective Services. CPS investigated 5,500 cases and was able to prove that at least 820 children suffered at least one incident of abuse. Moms, dads, boyfriends, grandparents and caretakers had beaten, molested, neglected and abandoned the very ones they were supposed to protect. And nobody knows how many more kids were abused, because nobody knew, saw or bothered to report them.

Worse, the abuse cases have increased just as the community’s ability to help has weakened. Says Winston: “It looks a little bit like scorched earth out there at times.”

Up and Up

Spokane County has long had higher abuse rates than the rest of the state. But in the past three years they’ve been even higher, with a rise in reports, CPS investigations and confirmed allegations. The year is barely half over, and already the number of abuse and neglect reports have blown past the year-end totals for 2007, 2008 and 2009.

It’s possible that the increase is just a result of more vigilance in the community, but some evidence suggests more abuse is occurring. An Inlander investigation last year found a rise in domestic violence case filings and requests for help. Domestic violence often accompanies, and is a part of, child abuse. And for years, at Spokane County Juvenile Court, the number of abuse or neglect cases referred to Court Appointed Special Advocates each month ranged from 28 to 30. But lately they’ve spiked, says volunteer programs coordinator Susan Cairy. By May 2012, referrals were topping 50 every month. By June of this year, they’d climbed above 70.

“We have never exceeded 70 referrals in a month, since time began,” Cairy says. “The scariest part about 70 kids in the summer — we don’t even have teacher’s eyes on kids.” Teachers are often the first to learn about abuse and are required by law to report it. Cairy fears what September will bring.

“Our families were hurting financially [even] before the economy tanked,” she says. “And people who are stressed out, have no place to live, have no transportation — stress comes out in some ugly ways sometimes on kids.”

Neglect rates, in particular, have skyrocketed. Inside the Spokane County Health District building, Elaine Conley, director of community and family service programs, taps a report on the table called “Healthy Families, Better Beginnings.” On the cover, two smiling multiracial parents give piggyback rides to two delighted kids outside a suburban home. The statistics inside, however, point to families stricken by abuse, neglect and trauma.

“In fact, when we look at this report, the data is pretty overwhelming,” Conley says. It’s not just child abuse. Compared with the state, more of Spokane County’s women smoked while pregnant, contracted chlamydia, had shorter pregnancies, qualified for Medicaid and suffered from adverse childhood experiences. Fewer infants were breast fed, more were born with birth defects.

And Spokane County has long had a lower median income and higher poverty rates than the rest of the state. While child abuse can happen in any family, the vast majority happens to children in poverty. A report to Congress in 2010 found child abuse more than three times more common in impoverished households. Neglect was nearly seven times more common. Spokane has incredibly vast disparities. The number of reports of suspected abuse or neglect from West Central’s Holmes Elementary is 26 times greater than the upper South Hill’s Moran Prairie.

Yet attempts to link increases in child abuse to economic downturns have had mixed results. Recently, a working paper studying child abuse data from California posed a possible explanation: “Male layoffs increase rates of abuse whereas female layoffs reduce rates of abuse.” After all, even though men spend less time with their kids, they more often play a role in abuse cases. In Spokane County, local industries dominated by males — like construction and manufacturing — took the first and hardest blows in the recession, leaving more laid-off men home with the children.

Conley sees yet another factor: For many, the days of being able to drop off the baby with Grandma or the family next door have passed.

“Many families either are estranged from their family, or their family lives in a totally different area,” Conley says. “Neighbors tend not to know neighbors anymore.”

Lingering Wounds

In the past year in Spokane, downtown businesses have bemoaned the waves of local street youth who loiter, vandalize, smoke and drive away customers. But Bridget Cannon, youth services director for Volunteers of America, knows what some of them have been through. They’ve walked through the door of Crosswalk, a shelter and drop-in center for homeless youth. She’s blown away by how these kids have dealt with so much, but are still alive, standing and seeking a better life. It inspires her.

click to enlarge Forensic interviewer Karen Winston sits down with children, asking them to describe the sexual and physical abuse they’ve experienced.
  • Forensic interviewer Karen Winston sits down with children, asking them to describe the sexual and physical abuse they’ve experienced.

When a kid sleeps at the Crosswalk shelter, they’re asked about their adverse experiences. Physical abuse is the most common. But Cannon knows that many who have been through horrible experiences don’t admit to anything, especially to someone legally bound to report any abuse.

“This girl, her mom was the first one to show her how to shoot up heroin when she was 12. And she’d been sexually abused by her uncle,” Cannon says. “But she didn’t report any of that on her intake.”

Cannon would love for these kids to get counseling, but many don’t want to go. “Anytime they may have asked for help in the past, they may have been smacked upside the head,” she says.

Once a child is abused, there are few good options. Leave them with their parents, and risk more abuse. But take them away, and the act of separation from their mom or dad often leaves a deep wound.

Cannon remembers driving down Division Street with a foster child. “He pointed to a bus stop, and said, ‘That’s the last place I saw my mom,’” Cannon recalls. “‘That’s where CPS took me away… and put me into foster care.’”

The boy sat there quiet for a stretch, she says, and then said, “I must have been a really bad kid.” Cannon says a lot of kids blame themselves for getting taken away from their parents.

Kids who were hungry, who were abused, who grew up around drugs, divorce, domestic violence, who had incarcerated parents — all were significantly more likely to have chronic illness, abuse drugs, get pregnant early and attempt suicide. Social scientists refer to these situations as Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. The more ACEs in a child’s deck, the more the deck is stacked against him.

“If they’re being abused, they are not able to develop mentally, emotionally — occasionally it affects their physical growth,” mental health counselor Katie Jessop says. “They struggle in school, they struggle in friendships, they struggle with intimate relationships.”

Children who were abused are nine times more likely to become involved in criminal activity. Abuse increases the risk of sexually risky behavior, and even raises the risk of being raped as an adult. Worst of all, children who are abused are more likely to perpetuate abuse upon their own children.

Unmaking a Monster

“In August 2006, I pled guilty to third-degree child assault after physically abusing my infant daughter in late 2005,” Jeremiah Donier writes in an email. “In black and white this sounds absolutely monstrous to me.”

It doesn’t just sound monstrous, Donier says over the phone. “When I talk about it, it scares me,” Donier says. He’d never been a violent man, but had always been an angry one. He’d stuff down his emotions, like his dad taught him, until they came boiling over.

Donier wasn’t addicted to drugs, wasn’t living in poverty, but he was incredibly overwhelmed. And when stress piles on stress without relief, studies show, the danger of child abuse increases.

By now, he says, the details have blurred. But he remembers feeling absolutely terrified to be raising an infant daughter. He remembers working 40 hours a week for Spokane County, coming home exhausted to a wife who was falling apart and to a daughter who kept crying and crying. He wasn’t getting any sleep, and he didn’t know what to do or who to turn to or how to handle it or how to get her to shut up. So he’d lash out. He’d spank her, and worse.

click to enlarge Brajee Green, second from left, grew up surrounded by abuse. But she and husband Ken have determined that raising their children, Kenny and Sophia, will be different.
  • Brajee Green, second from left, grew up surrounded by abuse. But she and husband Ken have determined that raising their children, Kenny and Sophia, will be different.

Then came that snowy day just after Thanksgiving, when the doctor found bruising on his infant daughter’s abdomen and ear.

“I probably boxed her ear or did something,” Donier says. “I was tired that day. I don’t remember.” At Sacred Heart Medical Center, X-rays revealed broken ribs.

“I didn’t realize that,” Donier says. “I squeezed my daughter so tight that I broke a couple of ribs. I didn’t realize I was so capable of being so angry.”

Facing a felony, he lost his job. CPS took his little girl away, sending her to a foster home. “It did send me into bankruptcy. It did send me into despair,” Donier says. “[But] it’s not the end of the road.”

For 20 hours a week, Donier met with his daughter, under intense supervision, at a house in Browne’s Addition that had been converted into a place for parents to reconnect with the children they’d lost. He’d play with his child, and staff members would give him feedback, teaching him how to understand what his daughter needed. Counselors dipped deep into his psyche and his past, unearthing reasons for his anger.

Finally, after 13 months, after decorating his house with Christmas lights, he brought his daughter home. “I want other men to know, other parents to know,” Donier says. “You have to get ahold of who you are and deal with your past.” In 2009, he co-founded a program called the Spokane Parent Advocacy Network, a support group for parents involved with CPS.

Those in the field, however, stress that teaching “parenting” takes an extraordinary amount of time and resources.

“It’s not an information issue. It’s not: ‘Don’t leave the baby alone in the bathtub.’ It’s an emotional regulation issue,” says Janet Mann, the founder of The Children’s Ark, the program that helped Donier. “I see no point in doing piecemeal Band-Aid stuff. ... If all you do is run some parents through some programs that tell them what to do and what not to do, and return the children, you’ve changed nothing.”

But Children’s Ark, which Donier credits with bringing his family back together, no longer exists. The program shut down in spring of 2010. The founders were retiring just as the budget cuts shook the foundations of social services, as the state slashed the number of counseling hours it would reimburse.

“We had to give it up and close the door,” Mann says. “We were not willing to do a less comprehensive program.”

Stretching the Safety Net

Other companies that manage visitations and work to repair families are struggling too. The Nurturing Center for Children and Families has only been kept alive thanks to Salvation Army funds and is restructuring to find a way to sustain itself. Empowering Inc. Services’ visitations program has been growing, but with training costs increasing and slashed transportation reimbursements, it’s hard to break even. They’ve refinanced, sought private investors and cut wages.

“Literally, I have gone without pay for a year,” Empowering Inc. executive director April Cathcart says. She knows of several other executive directors who’ve done the same. She sees “a lot of animosity” between contracted service providers and the state over cuts.

It’s another case of the recession’s two-punch cruelty: right when need is greatest, help is at its least available. In 2011, Washington state cut 5,000 families off welfare in one stroke when a new five-year limit kicked in. Hillyard’s Head Start program, offering preschool education for lower-income kids, fell prey to the sequester and upcoming highway construction. Crosswalk, the homeless teen shelter, lost a $100,000 grant last year.

Even agencies that managed to cobble together enough funding to avoid service cuts have to contend with increased demand. The Union Gospel Mission can comfortably house 75 women and children at its emergency crisis shelter. But in mid-June, a record 120 women and children slept at the shelter. So many women and children were seeking shelter that bunk beds had to be added.

“I see children returned to unsafe situations, and I’m fearful the abuse will happen again,” Forshag, the nurse practitioner, says. She says the lack of resources only contributes to the danger. Partners with Families and Children interviewed 28 fewer alleged victims of child abuse in 2012 than 2011 — not because of fewer referrals, but because budget cuts meant they had to get rid of a part-time interviewer.

Few agencies have been hit harder than the Spokane Regional Health District’s public nursing program. Thirteen years ago, Peggy Slider was one of 56 public health nurses at the Health District. Today, she’s one of only 17.

Four years ago, she was a nurse in the First Steps program, meeting low-income pregnant women to help them in those crucial first months of parenthood. She was their guide through the bureaucratic labyrinth of Medicaid, welfare, housing and food stamps. She would give mothers advice on how to discipline. One mother still keeps in touch with her.

“She still calls me a half-a-dozen times a year or more,” Slider says. “When she has a question, when she doesn’t trust the doctor, when she looks for resources.”

But due to cuts in state reimbursement rates, that program, which served more than 900 clients, was eliminated in 2010. Today, Slider’s job focuses on whole neighborhoods instead of helping individual parents. The Health District still aids new mothers with the more intensive Nurse Family Partnership program, but that only serves 150 families — 50 fewer than a few years before.

In all, the Health District says 11 different programs for low-income families have been either eliminated or drastically cut in the past five years.

The Early Intervention Program assisted families who had been reported to CPS but had a comparably lower risk of child abuse. It’s gone. The general field nursing program sent public health nurses out to help new parents at the request of hospitals, even if they didn’t qualify for specific programs. Gone. The Work First program found important resources for children of working parents on Medicaid. That’s gone too.

If Spokane voters had different priorities, the financial situation for many of the nonprofits could have been different. In 2009, voters were asked to bump up property taxes to raise $5 million to pay for a “Children’s Investment Fund” intended to bring down school dropout rates. A quarter of that money would have funded nonprofits battling child abuse.

The initiative didn’t just fail, it was blown out of the water — with nearly two-thirds of Spokane voters opposing it.

A Fresh Start

Kenny Green, a curly-haired 1-year-old, crouches at the Valley Mission Park playground, running his little hands intently through the bark, building piles, then destroying them. Kenny’s sister Sophia, a 3-year-old in pink, proudly holds up the dandelion she found. Her mother, Brajee, laces the flower through one of her blonde pigtails. Her dad sports a Cowboys baseball cap and holds a bright-pink Hello Kitty bag.

Neither of these kids was planned. In fact, when Brajee first found out she was pregnant, she was so terrified she met her friends at Applebee’s in tears. Brajee, too, grew up in an abusive home. One time her dad punched her in the ear so hard that she thought her eardrum had burst. It rang for hours.

“My mom and my dad both went to prison when I was young,” Brajee says. As a 6-year-old, she and her sister and brother once slept on the roof of a U-Haul truck while their mom looked for a homeless shelter or a cheap hotel. As a 12-year-old, she learned her dad had been running a prostitution business from their trailer. As a 14-year-old, struggling with suicidal thoughts, she cut herself repeatedly on her arms and thighs and landed in a psych ward. Just last week, she got a call: Dad’s back in jail.

Her sister’s only 22, she says, but has had four kids in three years, and seen three of them taken away by CPS.

But Brajee and her husband plan to break that cycle of abuse. Part of her success has been good fortune: escaping the abuse when she was 14, finding a community and a husband who loved and supported her. Part of it’s been government aid. Through the Health District’s Nurse Family Partnership program, Brajee had a public health nurse to talk to for the first years of parenthood.

And some of her success comes down to choice. She chose to stand up to her past.

“I fight against it every day. I have a lot of inner issues,” Brajee says, standing in the playground, her kids scampering around her, tears streaming down her cheeks. She struggles with anger. “I know I’m a lot better than my parents were. I just say that they taught me how not to be a parent.”

And because of who she is today, she doesn’t regret a thing she’s been through. “We’re very content,” Brajee says. “Look at them, I just don’t understand how someone could abuse their children.”

Her son walks down the grass, wearing her daughter’s floppy pink shoes. “I mean, look at how cute they are!” 


IN THE SCHOOLS

For the past two years, researchers from Washington State University have been in six elementary schools, training teachers and counselors to empathize and react to the traumatized minds of students. Through WSU’s instruction, teachers have been altering their lessons and shifting their disciplinary philosophy to take trauma into account. Next year, WSU will expand the program to 21 schools statewide.

“We want to teach educators how to set up those supportive learning environments,” says Natalie Turner, one of the researchers.

Spokane Public Schools, meanwhile, found enough room in their budget to place full-time counselors at every single elementary school next year, crucial for working with traumatized kids.

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