If you see something, say something

The Oregon Child Abuse Hotline, which launched in August 2018, is a toll-free number that allows you to report the abuse or neglect of any child to the Oregon Department of Human Services.

Between August 2018 and end of July 2019, the hotline received 98,404 calls. That is an increase over past years, where the average is about 80,000 calls per year, according to DHS data.

The hotline replaced 15 regional hotlines. The single toll free number streamlines the reporting process, but it has had some difficulties with wait times and dropped calls. In September — a busy time when children return to school — the maximum wait time was 100 minutes. About 40% of calls in September took more than 2 minutes to answer.

In addition, DHS developed a 56-hour training for staffers who answer the hotline.

Jake Sunderland, spokesman for the agency, said officials are encouraged by the increase in reports and new transparency around how child deaths are investigated.

The more information child welfare advocates have, the more they can help, he said.

“Every fatality is a tragedy,” Sunderland said. “And every child fatality has something we can learn from when it comes to prevention.”

If you suspect abuse or neglect, you can call the hotline: 855-503-SAFE (7233)

But you can also report a suspected case to your local police department, county sheriff, county juvenile department or Oregon State Police.

Signs of a child in trouble are not always as obvious as bruises, casts and black eyes.

A change in behavior, poor hygiene or not wearing a winter coat can be subtle but important signals of child neglect. Each of them trigger concern from law enforcement officers and social workers, who say they are alarmed by an increase in neglect cases throughout Oregon.

Child neglect cases in Deschutes County increased from 172 cases in 2014 to 362 cases in 2018, according to Oregon Department of Human Services data. Neglect comprised 79.2% of Deschutes County child welfare cases in 2018. Statewide, that number was 86.5%.

Not all neglect cases are as extreme as the case of Maliyha Hope Garcia, the 5-year-old girl who was starved to death by her parents in 2016. But the number of child deaths due to neglect is rising in the state. Maliyha was one of 15 children to die from neglect in Oregon in 2016, according to DHS data. Four others that year died from abuse.

Statewide, 20 children died from neglect in 2018.

Neglect accounted for about 75% of abuse and neglect-related fatalities in Oregon and nationwide over the last five years, according to DHS data.

“We are definitely seeing more cases of chronic neglect than we are of abuse, especially when it comes to fatalities,” said Jake Sunderland, Oregon DHS spokesman. “There is a lot of work to do through the community and the entire child welfare system.”

A common factor in many of the neglect cases is substance abuse in families, Sunderland said. Child welfare workers are responding to more cases where both parents are under the influence of alcohol or drugs and have neglected their children. Being intoxicated has led parents to put their babies to bed with too many blankets, leading to suffocation, or they have slept with their babies and rolled onto them, Sunderland said.

In Maliyha’s case, her adoptive mother, Sacora Horn-Garcia — who was convicted of the girl’s murder Oct. 18 along with Maliyha’s adoptive father, Estevan Garcia — admitted during her trial to putting Maliyha to bed on multiple occasions and then using cocaine, smoking marijuana or drinking alcohol.

“Those are the big trends we are seeing right now,” Sunderland said.

Other factors behind neglect cases, as well as child abuse cases, are a family’s lack of housing or employment and struggles with mental or physical health.

“In almost every situation regardless of socioeconomic status, this generally happens in a family that is in crisis,” Sunderland said.

Tim Rusk, executive director of MountainStar Relief Nursery in Bend, said his nonprofit organization works with several others across Central Oregon to assist families in need before child abuse and neglect can occur.

The various organizations offer home visits, parenting classes and mental health services.

The groups are getting results. MountainStar reports that 98% of the children it serves are never abused or neglected. Since it opened in 2001, MountainStar increased the number of children it serves from 34 in the first year to more than 300 children annually.

Nevertheless, child abuse and neglect remain persistent in the region.

Deschutes County’s child abuse and neglect ranking dropped significantly last year from 11th to 20th out of the state’s 36 counties, according to data from Children First for Oregon, a statewide nonprofit child advocacy organization. Child abuse and neglect cases in the county increased from 430 in 2017 to 688 in 2018, the data showed.

Rusk said his organization and others are motivated to curb the trend.

Each child abuse and neglect prevention organization follows a national model of five key behaviors that keep children safe. They are parental resilience, social connections, knowledge of parenting and child development, concrete support in times of need and a child’s social and emotional competence.

Children are put at risk when families don’t follow those behaviors, Rusk said.

“This is a framework for how to work with families and prevent abuse and neglect,” Rusk said. “If neglect is increasing, chances are these factors are missing.”

Some of those safety nets must have been missing for Maliyha, Rusk said.

“The parents did not have a lot of resilience,” Rusk said. “They had big issues that would clobber most people, but they needed to find a way to overcome some of those things with a little bit more resilience.”

Nydia Acosta, outreach coordinator at MountainStar, meets families who volunteer to be a part of the organization’s programs. She assesses each family’s circumstances to decide what programs to offer. She tallies risk factors, such as poverty, housing and high-stress living situations.

Children in high-risk families qualify for early childhood therapy classes and access to donated food and supplies.

Acosta found many of the high-risk parents have had abusive upbringings. An underlying goal of the child prevention programs is to stop the cycle of abuse, she said. The Child Welfare Information Gateway, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says research indicates that victims of abuse and neglect are known to repeat the behavior with their own children.

“They don’t mean to do the things they do, but this is what they know because that’s the life they grew up with,” Acosta said. “So that’s where we come in. We are not there to judge. We are not there to criticize. We are there to support.”

MountainStar offers monthly home visits during which a staffer checks the family’s progress and offers any needed support. Acosta said when she visits a home she always gets on the floor with the child to play and encourages the parents to join her at the child’s level.

“Getting at the child’s level is very important,” Acosta said. “Just little things like that can make a difference.”

Lori Colvin, regional program manager at the Bend-based Healthy Families of the High Desert, oversees a home visiting program for new parents that is focused on preventing child abuse and neglect.

Healthy Families of the High Desert, part of the Oregon Healthy Start Program, has seven home visitors who are assisting 105 families in Central Oregon. The organization also has a screener who meets new parents at the hospital the day their baby is born to offer assistance.

Parents often feel vulnerable when they bring their first child home and welcome any additional support they can receive, Colvin said. Home visitors answer questions and help parents develop goals for themselves and their children.

“It increases their confidence in their parenting,” Colvin said. “And that is exactly what will prevent child abuse.”

Bend resident Cassandra Reed, 31, a single mother who is raising her 1-year-old son, Keegan, was grateful to be connected with Healthy Families of the High Desert the day her son was born. Since then, a staffer has made weekly home visits to check on Reed and her son.

The advocate teaches Reed games to play with Keegan, more ways to baby-proof her house and helps with other aspects of life, such as renewing her license to continue working as a hairstylist.

The home visitor has become one of the biggest supports in her life, Reed said.

“As a new parent, there are just so many things going on,” Reed said. “You don’t know all the right answers. They almost give you more information than any book you can read.”

Redmond Police Sgt. April Huey said the department has seen a slight increase in child abuse crimes — which include assaults, sexual abuse and criminal mistreatment — and neglect crimes.

Reports of child abuse crimes in Redmond increased from 594 in 2016 to 625 in 2019 through Oct. 25, according to the department’s data.

Huey said it is important to remember that while child abuse is common with families in crisis, it can happen within any family circumstance.

“Any child can be a victim of child abuse,” Huey said. “It can occur in wealthy homes or homes in poverty.”

Huey said everyone should report concerns about a child’s well-being, even if they are not one of the state’s mandatory reporters — individuals who frequently see children and are required to report their suspicions to state child welfare advocates or police.

“If you have any concerns about a child,” Huey said, “we encourage you to make a report.”

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

— To read complete coverage of Maliyha Hope Garcia’s story and the murder trial of her parents, visit www.bendbulletin.com/topics/maliyha