Georgia child abuse, neglect reports up

ATLANTA - After a year of steep decline, reports of child abuse and neglect are inching back up in Georgia, a trend some child welfare officials say can be attributed in part to the bad economy.

And the number of families receiving some type of state assistance - such as help finding a place to live - has jumped 48 percent since March 2008, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press in an open records request.

With shelters and charities struggling and the state experiencing record high unemployment rates, those in the child welfare field say they're seeing the strain on the front lines.

'This is the first time parents have come to court begging you to take custody of their children because they have run out of options,' Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker said.

State Department of Human Resources Commissioner B.J. Walker acknowledged the recession was partly to blame for 'the slight upward drift' in abuse and neglect reports.

'Times are hard, that's certainly true,' Walker said. 'But fundamentally, I don't think the economic downturn turns someone into a child abuser or neglecter.'

Reports of abuse and neglect have crept up 1.9 percent to 11,556 for the fiscal year that began last July, according to the state data. That increase comes on the heels of a year in which such reports plummeted 37.2 percent.

So far, the number of children entering the system through foster care and group homes has not increased, and officials credit an aggressive effort by state and county child welfare workers to provide families help.

While in the past a mother found living with her children in a car might have had those children taken away, now the first step is often to try to find the family suitable housing, Walker said.

The number of such family support cases climbed steadily from 85,276 in March 2008 to 126,407 a year later.

The increased demand on the system comes as Georgia has slashed its budget, forcing the state to furlough a number of child welfare workers without pay.

But some say it is less about outright abuse and more about neglect brought about by lack of money. Kids arriving at school dirty or undernourished, for example, will prompt a call to welfare officials and an investigation begins.

'There's a lot more stress in the household. And there's a lot more economic neglect if families don't have the money to care for their children,' said Karen Worthington, director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at Emory University.

Clayton County Juvenile County Judge Steven Teske, past president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges, said he's seen a spike in cases alleging lack of parental supervision.

'You have families where the parents lose their job and have to take anything they can get,' Teske said. 'So, then they have to take a third (night) shift and have no one to care for the kids so they leave them alone.'

Reports of child abuse and neglect don't mean the cases are legitimate. They are assigned to welfare workers to investigate. In February, 2009 - the last month for which state data is available - 837 cases were unsubstantiated and 1,068 cases were substantiated.