By Hayley Kappes
Killeen Daily Herald
Hearing gut-wrenching stories of children suffering at the hands of abusers was not enough to get people behind the cause.
So Danny Daniel, a special election candidate for House District 55, decided to take his platform to the ballot and make voters realize how much of their money was being spent on county child abuse services. It has been his sole campaign platform against Republican Ralph Sheffield and Democrat Sam Murphey.
"I saw an opportunity to turn a lemon election into lemonade," Daniel said. "Those two (Sheffield and Murphey) saw it as something else they had to sign up for. I saw it as a valuable opportunity to bring light to the child abuse problem we have."
Daniel began his campaign fighting child abuse in 2003 because there was an epidemic in the county, he said.
Community leaders joined his campaign, including the Bell County sheriff and presidents of local colleges.
Still, Daniel said, not enough has been done by the community to increase awareness on the child abuse machine. A majority of taxpayers think domestic abuse cases don't affect them if it's not happening in their home, he said.
Child abuse has generated an immense economic impact in the county. Foster care expenditures in Bell County totaled more than $6 million in 2007, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Social service organizations that perform rescue work are inundated with reports and cases year-round.
Daniel is trying to change the dynamics of what local state representatives do when the House is in session in Austin. He said prevention is key to reduce child abuse and will free up revenue in the county, lightening the burden on taxpayers.
Bell County Judge Charles Van Orden was appointed to his position in 2001. Orden handles all cases where Child Protective Services investigated reports of child abuse or neglect for a seven-county area including Bell, Coryell and Lampasas. He hears between 50 and 60 cases every week.
Since 2001, Van Orden has seen the number of children removed from their home by CPS more than double in Killeen.
"It's a growth industry," he said with a distressed expression.
After seven years, it's still difficult every time Van Orden reads reports on children who were sexually abused, beaten or born with drug addictions. He said 20 percent of the cases he handles involve a mother who used cocaine or methamphetamines while carrying her baby in utero.
"The hardest thing for me as a judge is to keep an open mind, because your first response in that situation is anger," he said. "What the system is trying to do is reunify these families in a healthy way. It's not good for kids to be separated from their parents."
The most emotionally draining case Van Orden oversaw involved the death of a 4-year-old girl from Killeen. The child and her siblings were left in the care of their grandmother after their mother deployed overseas. The grandmother became angry with the child for not completing a school assignment, and a beating ensued. She broke an extension cord on the girl's back. By the time the ambulance arrived, the child was dead.
According to court reports, the last thing the child said to her grandmother was, "Nanny, I love you."
"I got a lump so big in my throat that I had to excuse myself," Van Orden said. "I went outside and started weeping for her and all the other kids like her."
Bell County was ranked fifth in the state for the number of children removed from their homes by CPS and for the number of child deaths due to abuse in 2007. Bell is the 17th most populated county in the state, according to 2007 census estimates.
"Those numbers are very skewed and it makes you wonder what is going on here," Van Orden said.
Wanted to help
Keith Wallace always wanted to help children who had suffered abuse. Wallace, executive director of Central Texas Youth Services, ran away from an abusive home at 16 and never returned.
His organization provides free emergency shelter, transitional living, counseling and 24-hour assistance for at-risk children over an eight-county area.
Wallace said 95 percent of children who seek refuge in the Killeen shelter were abused or neglected by their primary caregiver at home.
The shelter sees about 200 children every year, and the number is growing. The average time each child spends at the shelter has also increased over the past four years – from nine to 45 days.
"Physical abuse and bruises heal," Wallace said. The things that are said to a kid, the verbal and emotional abuse never goes away."
Wallace said it's important for people to notice signs of abuse. Indicators include a child placing blame on themselves for bruises and other bodily injuries. Many children truly believe they deserve physical or emotional wounds inflicted upon them by a parent or loved one.
The organization has staff members ready to help children with depression and other serious emotional issues they have to confront as a result of being abused. Their goal is to help children understand they are loved and valuable.
"The cool thing about kids is they're resilient," Wallace said. "If they're given an opportunity to grow, they can overcome terrible things and come out OK."
Continue to fight
Daniel will continue his fight against child abuse, even if he doesn't win the election on Tuesday. He said this problem will only be resolved once Bell County voters demand their candidates focus on the issue.
"What have you done to reduce demand on your social services?" Daniel asked. "Taxpayers have to pull their heads out of the sand (and) do something."
Contact Hayley Kappes at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7559.
By the numbers: Child abuse in Bell County
3,783 – child abuse or neglect reports
1,247 – confirmed child abuse or neglect cases
415 – children removed from the home
967 – Children in Department of Family and Protective Services custody
692 – children in foster care
$6,224,160 – spent in foster care expenditures
6 – child abuse or neglect-related fatalities
Collected from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services' Data Book of Statistics from 2007