A closer look at the issue of child abuse and neglect in the M.O.V.

North Star, the voice of children in the MOV | Part One
Every Monday in October, Alexa takes an in depth look at child abuse and neglect in the Mid-Ohio Valley, and North Star's role in the investigative process
Published: Oct. 2, 2023 at 9:46 AM EDT
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PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (WTAP) - Child abuse isn’t an easy topic to talk about, but it’s an important topic for everyone to talk about.

North Star Child Advocacy Center covers five counties, Wood, Wirt, Pleasants, Ritchie, and Calhoun.

Looking at the data collected by North Star in those five counties, Wood County makes up 75% of child abuse and neglect cases.

Those numbers can be seen in the resources being dedicated to these investigations at the Sheriff’s office.

“Right now, the Sheriff’s Office is looking at about 54 to 55% of our detective investigative cases right now are child crimes. That’s a lot. That’s a lot compared to the other crimes,” according to Sheriff Rick Woodyard.

Greg Collins, the executive director for North Star said they see sexual and physical abuse cases, along with a lot of neglect cases.

Collins says last year, across its five counties, North Star did more than 600 interviews. That’s more than most in the state.

“… And we did 618 last year, the most in the state. We’ve been over 600 last three years. Even the COVID near we were over 600 when everybody else was shutting down.”

Only about 65-70% of kids they talk with will disclose abuse and neglect, according to Collins.

As of June 30th, North Star had already conducted 305 interviews for 2023.

Abby Pifer is a forensic interviewer and family advocate at North Star. She said she wants every to know child abuse and neglect is more prevalent in the Mid-Ohio Valley than some may think.

“...Before I start working here, you know I would see things on TV or on the news and be like no way that happens here, but I’m here to tell you that it does happen here...”

Wood County Prosecutor, Pat Lefebure, says the number of abuse and neglect cases has grown since the opioid epidemic, representing a third of their cases.

“You know, we used to have, you know roughly 200 to 250. We’re now pushing 400 cases a year,” said Lefebure.

The deputy Commissioner for DHHR’s Bureau for Social Services says last year, Wood and Wirt counties got 1,352 referrals that required investigation by CPS. As of June 14th of this year, over 650 referrals have been received.

Abby Pfifer explained that most of the time the abuser is someone the child may know, is close to, or even lives in their home. This was a thought echoed across the board.

Pat Lefebure said he thinks it’s a misconception that people think they should always be looking for a stranger.

“... But the vast majority of cases are family members that either you know, whether it be a relative or you know the parent’s partner, or somebody who is there. Upwards of probably 80% of them are family member related. So, it’s terrible, it’s unfortunate but it is you know it’s much more widespread than people realize.”

Pifer further explained, “So, that’s something that’s really important for people to know because we’ve been teaching kids about stranger danger for a long time, but really what we should be teaching kids about, is strange behaviors by the people that they know and love.”

Collins echoed the thought by briefly touching on what the interviewers and advocates face in these cases.

“Some of the physical abuses are things you wouldn’t imagine a biological parents would do to their own blood... their own child,” Collins said.

Most of the agencies say that drug abuse is an increasing factor to the referrals.

“And the vast majority of [cases involving child abuse and neglect] are all drug related, and the biggest increase that we’ve seen is basically when parents can’t parent their child because they’re under the influence and that’s been a huge increase for us.”

Sheriff Woodward also pointed out that agencies may be looking at this issue more than in the past, and that it’s being brought to their attention more.

More resources and education have been dedicated to this issue.

Collins said one of the issues with finding these cases is a lack of understanding by the victims.

“You know, kids are resilient. and a lot of the kids that I see come through here... Many don’t realize that the things they’re experiencing aren’t normal. They’ve been experiencing this since birth and the things that they’re experiencing in the home are just, they think every child is experiencing that

Communication is emphasized as something parents and caregivers can do to help educate their children.

Pifer says parents should start at a young age.

“So at a young age, you really want to start talking to your kids about the correct names for the private parts on their body. You want to educate them on certainly on Stranger Danger, but also what’s appropriate and not appropriate between like adults and children, or younger children and older children. You want to let them know like they don’t need to be embarrassed, that you’re like a safe space for them to come and talk about things.”

“You know, talk to them and let them know that, ‘hey, if something doesn’t feel right, if somebody is, you know, acting inappropriately towards you, it’s safe, you can talk to us, you know, or talk to your teachers’,’ explained Lefebure.

Sheriff Woodyard went on to say that the human body has a way of telling us when something is wrong. He said to listen to those feelings.

“So if you see something as a caregiver, report it.

Woodyard to point on one positive, “... A lot more people are reporting these crimes. I think they’ve had enough.”

If you are someone you know needs help:

All Wood County School employees are mandatory reporters. If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected., you can call the West Virginia child abuse hotline at 1-800-352-6513.