The statistics are shocking. Last year in Orange County, 11,547 cases of child abuse were reported to the county Child Abuse Register. That's an increase of 48% over the previous year. Fifteen of the children died because of abuse or neglect at the hands of the adults in whom they had put their trust for care and protection.
And, so far this year, the number of child abuse incidents reported is running ahead of 1984's record number.
Public officials note that the increase doesn't necessarily mean that more children are being abused. The publicity being given child abuse cases, such as the prosecution of the former teachers of the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach on sexual assault charges, has led to a greater awareness and willingness to report suspected cases to authorities.
That's a welcome development, but as much as public awareness has been heightened, another grim statistic indicates it hasn't been improved nearly enough. Child abuse specialists estimate that only about half of the youngsters who are beaten, battered, sexually molested, neglected or emotionally mistreated come to their attention.
Some cases remain undetected because children are too frightened to say anything. Some adults are too timid to report what they fear are only suspicions, despite a state law that requires all "known or suspected" incidents of child abuse be reported. And some parents just don't recognize some warning signs in their children.
We are encouraged, however, by the efforts to overcome those problems and follow up on the crush of cases coming into the registry.
The county district attorney's office has asked for funds from the Board of Supervisors to hire four more investigators for its special unit that prosecutes child abuse cases. The board should provide the money.
And the county grand jury earlier this month urged school districts to better prepare teachers to recognize and report child abuse cases. It also urged the county to employ more bilingual staff members to counsel ethnic groups about family customs that could be in violation of California's laws protecting children.
Parents and other adults can also play a much more active role. They should take advantage of special training classes to help them become more alert to warning signs of abuse that children may show--and they must impress on children the importance of telling their parents if in any way they are being abused by someone outside the home.
Every report to the registry helps protect another child from potential abuse, provides another family with the opportunity to receive counseling and gives prosecutors a chance to separate from society those who criminally assault children.
The growing number of child abuse cases being reported is disturbing, but we're more concerned about the cases and the children the registry is not hearing about.