Children’s Justice Center director optimistic despite seeing increase in reports of child abuse

ST. GEORGE — The Washington County Children’s Justice Center reported an increase in child abuse cases of various types brought to the center over the last six months. While it is easy to assume the worst as the numbers rise above what they were last year, the center’s director said she is optimistic. For her, it is a sign more children are getting the help they and their families need.

Kristy Pike, director of the the Washington County Children’s Justice Center, speaks to the Washington County Commission, St. George, Aug 3, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“The Centers for Disease Control says 1 in 5 children will be sexually assaulted before age 18. We don’t see nearly that number of kids here,” Kristy Pike, director of the center, told the Washington County Commission on Aug. 3.

“So what that tells me is that there are a lot of kids being abused that we don’t know about yet – not just sexual abuse but other types of abuse as well. So when our numbers at the center go up, what that tells me is that more kids are reporting. … The more it’s reported, the more we can help.”

The Children’s Justice Center provides a place where children who have experienced abuse of any sort can be interviewed in an environment geared to feel more inviting and open than a police station. Once inside, the child is interviewed by a forensic interviewer during a session that is also recorded and watched by law enforcement and others in another room. From there the child is referred to medical and mental health services as needed.

Other services the center offers include victims advocacy, preparing protective orders and helping the children and their families find aid in other areas as applicable.

During the Aug. 3 meeting, Pike and others shared statistics on the center’s work over the previous six months.

Highlights include the following:

  • The center has conducted 155 interviews so far this year, which is up from 133 this time last year.
  • Completed medical examinations were also up:  73 compared to last year’s 67.
  • 74 traumatic stress screenings have been conducted, with an average score of 20.2 – anything over 20 is considered high. These screening help identify potential cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and thoughts of suicide experienced by the victims of abuse.
  • The center has also provided 617 hours of mental health therapy so far this year.

According to prior presentations by the center, a majority of allegations they have received tend to be related to sexual abuse and assault. Other allegations include cases of physical abuse and neglect, domestic violence, stalking and harassment, teen dating violence and bullying.

In the March 2021 report to the commission that summed up 2020, it was noted that up to 90% of allegations involved someone the victim knew.

While the center focuses on providing aid to the primary victims of child abuse, it also offers therapy for secondary victims, such as the victim’s parents and others who are exposed to the cases, like police investigators, medical personnel and prosecutors.

One of the interview rooms in the Washington County Children’s Justice Center, St. George, Aug 9, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“We also do some work to help our multi-disciplinary team members – other professionals who deal in this area of child abuse,” Pike said. “It’s a hard area, it’s tough, and we are dedicated to helping those professionals be healthy in their lives as they deal with these difficult issues.”

Complete numbers for 2021 will be reported to the County Commission next March.

The center’s biannual report given to the County Commission last week is a requirement of the Victims of Crime Act grant the center applies for each year. The grant provided the center with $376,000 last year, which made up 55% of its overall funding and 99% of the funding for the center’s mental health services.

This year, the amount granted to the center dropped 36% to $241,600, which Pike said will not cover the cost of training, travel or staff raises. It is a drop the center anticipated, she said, as grant funding has been decreasing in recent years.

While that has been a concern for the center, Pike said recent legislation passed by Congress should help restore a higher level of funding, though not until 2023.

Despite the drop in federal funding, the mission of the Children’s Justice Center rolls on, with other avenues of funding from the Utah Attorney General’s Office, Washington County, a nonprofit connected to the center and private citizens and entities.

The garage of the Washington County Children’s Justice Center is being converted into new rooms for mental health services, St. George, Aug 9, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

As an example of the support the justice center has from the community, Pike pointed to the expansion of mental health services the center is undertaking. This has taken the form of transforming the center’s garage into new rooms. Work on the expansion is being done free of charge by the contractor and subcontractors involved.

“We live in an amazingly generous community,” Pike said.

The expansion itself has been necessitated by an increased demand for mental health services via therapy sessions, so the addition of the new rooms will help a great deal, she said.

“Not only have our numbers picked up, but we also have expanded services,” Pike said. “So as we have added mental health services here, and as we have added medical services here in the building, we have run out of room. So we’re converting out garage into a space for out therapy program. … We’re really excited to for what that’s going to mean for kids and their families.”

Under Utah law, anyone who suspects a child may be a victim of abuse is required to call 866-323-3237. However, this is not to be a substitute for 911 when the need is considered immediate.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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