By Victor O'Brien
Killeen Daily Herald
It all starts with a phone call to the Child Abuse Hotline.
A daycare worker tells the Child Protective Service's intake line specialist that a child has bruises and a bloody wound. The call is labeled priority 1.
A short time later, Stephen Phelps, a CPS investigator in eastern Bell County, is rushing to the daycare. Phelps must respond within 24 hours to priority 1 calls. The responsibility to stop the abuse falls on his shoulders once the call for help is made.
"We need to get out quick," Phelps says. "We need to make sure the child is safe, whether it's from the parent or the daycare."
Phelps arrives at the daycare and investigates. He confirms the abuse happened and he makes the rare decision that the child needs to be removed from their home because the parents could hurt the child more.
Though the aforementioned situation is only hypothetical, Phelps hears and witnesses traumatic cases of child abuse, often only understood by co-workers and law enforcement colleagues. They experience horror stories where children are abandoned to live on the streets, sexually abused by family members they trust or almost beaten to death.
"When you sit there and try to wrap your mind around what this child went through, whatever the traumatic circumstances, chances are this was done by somebody who was close to them," Phelps said. "To violate that type of trust, how do you relate to the child?"
Sometimes a look into a child's fragile, frightened eyes tells Phelps, "Thank you. Please help me."
"They understand what is wrong and they have been waiting for someone to come and help," Phelps said.
Lori Hix has looked into the confused eyes of an abused child. Hix has investigated crimes against children for 13 of her 16 years with the Copperas Cove Police Department.
The cases are as unpredictable as a chess match, except Hix never has a chance to make the first move. Hix makes the next moves to hopefully close a case, whether she discovers the alleged abuse happened or the report was false.
Hix interviews witnesses and parents. She interviews the frightened child. She screens the case with a district attorney to see if charges need to be filed.
Hix will exhaust days just to close one case, but the games never end. Before one game finishes, Hix is already making moves in several others, so as to not fall behind or lose.
Black, blue and gray
Bruises are black and blue, but they are also gray.
Jeff Waggoner investigates juvenile crimes for the Harker Heights Police Department. Waggoner believes the line between abuse and discipline is blurry.
When a child cannot handle the punishment or the parent's anger surpasses a normal emotional response, then the parent has gone too far, Hix said.
Many reported cases of child abuse turn out to be false, officials said. The false reports result in part from there being no clear definition of child abuse and the change in social norms during the last several decades.
Parents are more informed than ever about abuse because of media coverage. They are also misinformed and more reluctant to discipline children because of media portrayals that stigmatize discipline as abuse.
"I can't spank them because if I leave a bruise you'll come get me,' Hix often hears. "To me it's false advertisement. They're thinking things that aren't true. I'm not going to come get them if they leave a bruise. CPS might talk to them, but they will not get arrested. They still need to discipline their children."
Child abuse reports declined in 2008, but CPS officials are keeping a careful eye on how the nation's financial crisis threatens children's safety in homes. Financial turmoil historically causes a rise in child abuse, CPS spokesman Chris Van Deusen said.
Community support and education are essential to decreasing child abuse, officials said.
"The old saying, 'it takes a community to raise a child,' I truly believe that is a fact. Not just your child, but everybody's child. Look, listen and ask. That's all you can do. If there's a problem, report it," Hix said. "Don't just walk away because you think it's OK."
Phelps recommends parenting classes, especially for young or first-time parents.
"If they can teach you that one idea or one skill you didn't know before, that can make all the difference in the world," he said.
Most CPS cases involved alleged abuse that did not happen, but still Phelps prefers the case be reported.
"If you suspect child abuse, I would never tell somebody not to report it. It always falls back on 'what if.' What if what is going on or what you might think is going on actually is going on? I would hate for anybody to have it on their conscience..."
To report suspected child abuse call 1-800-252-5400 or visit www.txabusehotline.org. You do have the option to remain anonymous.
Contact Victor O'Brien at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7468
Recognizing signs of child abuse and neglect
Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance
Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents' attention
Has learning problems (or difficulty concentrating) that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes
Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
Lacks adult supervision
Is overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn
Comes to school or other activities early, stays late, and does not want to go home
Shows little concern for the child
Denies the existence of, or blames the child for, the child's problems in school or at home
Asks teachers or other caretakers to use harsh physical discipline if the child misbehaves
Sees the child as entirely bad, worthless, or burdensome
Demands a level of physical or academic performance the child cannot achieve
Looks primarily to the child for care, attention, and satisfaction of emotional needs
The parent & child:
Rarely touch or look at each other
Consider their relationship entirely negative
State that they do not like each other