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PROTECTING KIDS: EVERYONE HAS A ROLE
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PROTECTING KIDS: EVERYONE HAS A ROLE

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Between now and when you read next Sunday's headlines, a dozen Guilford County children will have been locked up in a detention center or training school. Nearly one hundred children will have been reported as abused or neglected.

If those numbers - drawn from annual averages - seem alarming, consider this: After adjusting for population differences, Guilford County tops most North Carolina urban counties in detention and abuse/neglect rates.Guilford leads every North Carolina metropolitan county except Mecklenburg with its juvenile custody rate, according to 1997-98 figures just released by the state Division of Youth Services. Only one metropolitan county, Durham, has a higher rate of reported abuse and neglect.

These two critical indicators of child well-being are closely linked. Abused and neglected children are more likely to get involved in crime by imitating the violence and substance abuse they see in their own families.

With high rates of children being abused and held in custody, Guilford County is literally a breeding ground for trouble.

According to a News & Record survey this summer of 178 ``child well-being' experts and parents from across Guilford County, child abuse and neglect should be Guilford's top priority among children's issues in the next three years.

Parents bear the most responsibility for rearing their children safely, but with so many parents failing, child advocates say, the community must act or suffer the consequences.

As might be expected, many elected leaders, educators, human service providers and criminal justice experts argue for more detention centers, more police on the streets and in the schools, more child protective service workers to investigate abuse and neglect.

Although those responses can be effective, they are primarily reactive. What Guilford County must aggressively push, child advocates say, is for more early intervention and prevention.

``It's getting more attention, but the funding for prevention is still unbalanced,' says Emilie Gottsegen of the Family Life Council of Greater Greensboro. ``There are many more resources directed at dealing with problems than there are at prevention.'

Consider the magnitude of the custody and abuse problems:

The county has a higher rate of children reported as abused or neglected than any other North Carolina metropolitan county except Durham.

Guilford has a higher rate of substantiated abuse and neglect than any metro county except Durham. Guilford confirmed 1,872 children abused or neglected in fiscal year 1997-98. That's more than enough children to fill the county's two newest schools, Jesse Wharton and Pilot elementary schools.

Guilford's child abuse and neglect report rate has nearly doubled since 1990. The same is true of the rate of children in foster care.

Guilford has the state's seventh highest juvenile custody rate among children younger than 18. Children held in detention centers or training centers tend to be the most serious offenders.

Mirroring state and national trends, the percent of violent crimes among youth in Guilford County is steadily increasing.

The N.C. Child Advocacy Institute, a nonpartisan agency that lobbies for public policy to benefit children, has published some of this data. The News & Record calculated other data using the most recent raw numbers and population estimates from the state demographer's office. Data are expressed as rates, not raw numbers, for comparison across counties.

The numbers translate into growing costs for an entire community. This fiscal year, Guilford taxpayers will spend at least $9 million to fund child protective services, foster care, a juvenile detention center, a day reporting center and juvenile rehabilitation programs. That's a conservative estimate of county tax money alone - not city, state or federal. It's also a sum that could build another critically needed elementary school.

In recent years, several city and county surveys have identified child abuse and neglect and juvenile delinquency as trouble spots. And in the News & Record's recent survey on child well-being, respondents gave ``below average' marks to Guilford's response to child abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency, and conflict resolution/violence prevention programs for children.

Prevention is important because the seeds of child abuse, neglect and juvenile crime are planted in Guilford County's socioeconomic profile.

Compared to most metropolitan counties in North Carolina, Guilford has a smaller percentage of children 17 and younger yet has a higher percentage of children living in poverty.

Nearly a third of all Guilford children are living in single-parent households, compared with one in five in the 1970s. According to the N.C. Child Advocacy Institute, Guilford's divorce rate exceeds the state average.

Guilford has the state's highest drug arrest rate among adults, according to 1997 crime data. Guilford's rate is nearly three times higher than the rates in more populous Mecklenburg and Wake counties. Drug use is a major contributor to child abuse and neglect.

With many parents floundering, child advocates say its time for a broader range of the community - including businesses, churches, schools and nonprofit agencies - to step in as role models and teachers.

``Each person in the community, whether or not they are a parent, needs to own a piece of protecting children,' says Erv Henry, director of professional education for Family and Children's Service of Greater Greensboro.

Community awareness of children in danger spiked recently after two children were killed by abuse following Department of Social Services investigations of the two families. Those deaths highlighted weaknesses in the local DSS:

Child protective social workers were not doing enough to physically check children for signs of abuse.

DSS workers were not adequately reviewing the criminal records of parents under DSS investigation.

DSS staffing - and its constant turnover among child protective investigators - made aggressive monitoring of abuse and neglect difficult.

Since the child deaths, social workers are referring more children to physicians for evaluation. Workers also check the criminal records of every adult in homes being investigated. The county has hired five more investigative social workers since November.

The social workers, who look into reports of abuse and neglect, carried an average of 20 cases each in June. That was almost double the caseload recommended by the state.

At the same time that Guilford DSS struggles to improve performance, child welfare workers say intervention is not enough. Reducing abuse and neglect rests largely in prevention programs such as Healthy Start, which works with parents at risk for abusing children.

Some child advocates say Guilford County needs to go even further, reaching people before they become at-risk. Classes on child development and parenting would help.

Guilford County schools offer a parenting and child development class as an elective to high schoolers. The class covers child development through preschool age, parental stresses and coping strategies, the difference between discipline and child abuse, and the effects of abuse and neglect.

Community efforts bring some child abuse prevention into schools. For example, Childwatch of High Point, a private nonprofit agency, sends police officers into elementary schools to teach sex-abuse prevention. The agency is thinking about expanding the program in Guilford County.

Local schools already have acted on another area that child advocates say is critical to preventing future abuse and neglect: values education.

Parenting classes and values education might begin to chip away at Guilford's juvenile delinquency problem.

Greensboro police Capt. Larry Payne, head of the department's juvenile division, says many juvenile offenders tend to come from single-parent homes and lower-income families. They also tend to have parents or guardians with drug or alcohol problems or who are abusive.

But Payne sees a sizable share of juvenile offenders who come from households in which parents are simply too permissive: ``The child is ruling the roost. Too many parents think the way to raise their child is to be their best friend. A child isn't necessarily looking for a best friend. He's looking for his mother or father to be a parent.'

Court counselors say Guilford needs more prevention efforts such as after-school and summer programs. There's a shortage of programs for children older than 12, they say, and a shortage of programs affordable to the working poor.

Juvenile crime, like teenage sex, happens most in the late afternoon, between the time children leave school and the time parents get home from work. Says chief court counselor Diane Campbell: ``Don't worry about midnight basketball. Worry about late afternoon basketball.'

Guilford's school safety officials - who often see juvenile criminals before police - say the community also can help by pushing for children's programs that stress values. Guilford County schools started character education in elementary schools and middle schools this month.

EPIC, a program of the Family Life Council of Greater Greensboro, offers values education to all Guilford County schools now.

BY THE NUMBERS 5,414: The number of Guilford County children reported abused or neglected in 1997-98. 2,501: The number of Guilford County children reported abused or neglected in 1989-90. 857: The number of Guilford County children in DSS custody at the end of fiscal year 1997-98. 404: The number of Guilford County children in DSS custody at the end of fiscal year 1989-90. 574: The number of times Guilford County children younger than 18 were placed in a detention center or training school in fiscal year 1997-98. 509: The number of times Guilford County children younger than 18 were placed in a detention center or training school in fiscal year 1990-91. ||||||||||||||||||||| JUNK |||||||||||||||||||||\ 980913 SAFETY\ strip

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