A recent child abuse conviction and a current trial have highlighted how tragic abuse can become.

One case allegedly resulted in a 5-year-old girl starving to death. The other abuse case left a 2-year-old boy permanently injured.

While those extreme examples are relatively rare in the region, child welfare officials say the problem is prevalent in many ways. Child abuse cases often involve physical and sexual abuse, neglect and exposure to drugs.

“There are a lot of different forms of abuse,” said Shelly Smith, executive director at the KIDS Center, a child abuse intervention center in Bend. “We respond to all of those.”

Last year, the KIDS Center evaluated 322 children for potential abuse in Deschutes County. Statewide, 8,167 abuse cases involving 12,585 children were found in 2018 through Child Protective Services assessments.

Deschutes County ranks 11th in child abuse rates out of the state’s 36 counties, with 430 children experiencing abuse in 2017, according to the most recent data from Children First for Oregon. Crook County saw a higher rate of abuse but ranked 27th, with 104 abused children. Jefferson County ranks 29th, with 140 abused children, according to the data.

“Our rate is much lower, but the total number of children is much higher,” said Tim Rusk, executive director of MountainStar Relief Nursery in Bend. “There are more children in Deschutes County that are at risk of getting abused than the other two counties.”

Behind each child abuse case is often a contributing factor such as a family’s difficulty finding housing, employment or struggles with mental or physical health.

“The thing about child abuse is there are so many different factors that go into it,” Rusk said.

Rusk said his child abuse prevention organization works with families to address life circumstances that add stress and can lead to abuse.

“Tons of families are dealing with all of these big issues and have young children,” Rusk said. “They need support.”

MountainStar and other service organizations are raising awareness and offering programs to educate the public about how to prevent child abuse.

A common thread among the organizations is a focus on trauma-informed care, which focuses on how child abuse affects people as they get older.

Katie McClure, director of Central Oregon TRACEs (Trauma, Resilience and Adverse Childhood Experiences), said the nonprofit formed about three years ago to educate and train individuals and businesses.

“What we have tried to do is raise awareness about trauma,” McClure said. “All the different kinds of trauma and how that shows up in the community.”

National research has found those who experienced the trauma of child abuse are more likely to have long-term health problems, McClure said. Those health problems include diabetes, alcoholism and drug use.

“At the root of these things is abuse and neglect,” McClure said.

Jenna App, executive director at Court-Appointed Special Advocates of Central Oregon, said the agency is expecting to have about 500 children spend time in foster care this year due to abuse.

That number has increased from about 350 children five years ago, App said.

“It has increased as our population has increased,” App said. “It has grown dramatically.”

The state requires that CASA provide each child an advocate to navigate the court system, but the state has not budgeted enough money to make sure that happens. In Deschutes County in 2017, 80% of children in foster care were paired with a CASA advocate.

To help CASA and other programs, the Oregon Child Welfare Oversight Board recently recommended a statewide recruitment for 300 new child welfare workers. The state expects to have a majority of the positions filled by the end of October.

Organizations need all the resources they can get to offer more services, Rusk said.

“There still needs to be much more capacity to make a difference,” he said.

As for those in law enforcement, child abuse falls under a variety of categories from sex crimes to murder.

According to data from the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office, there were 136 criminal cases involving child abuse in 2018. So far this year, the number of cases is 146.

Because child abuse is widespread in the region, organizations hope people stay informed beyond the criminal cases that have drawn recent attention.

A trial started Friday for the Redmond couple, Estevan Adrian Garcia and Sacora Rose Horn-Garcia, who are accused of aggravated murder in the starvation death of their 5-year-old adopted daughter, Maliyha Hope Garcia.

Earlier this month, 22-year-old Madras man Josue Jair Mendoza-Melo was sentenced to 12 years in prison for severely beating his former girlfriend’s 2-year-old child, leaving him in a wheelchair and with a breathing tube.

“When these high-profile cases show up people get really concerned and attentive and want to do something about it,” Rusk said. “But then, people lose the focus. So the challenge is getting people to realize how important this is.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7820, kspurr@bendbulletin.com

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