TRAVERSE CITY — Allegations of child abuse, and confirmed cases, are on the rise, so the Traverse Bay Children's Advocacy Center is expanding to meet the need for child forensic interviews.
“This increasing need for our safe space and trained staff necessitated we add over 2,200 feet to our building so that our intervention specialists could conduct simultaneous child forensic interviews when needed, while also increasing the center’s capacity to provide vital counseling and trauma-informed therapy to child victims and nonoffending family members,” said TBCAC Board Chair Patricia Warner in a press release. “Our new state-of-the-art center is the result of tremendous community support from 35 multidisciplinary partner agencies, as well as the generous financial backing from many foundations, community groups and individual donors who will donate in excess of $555,000 to make this capital project a reality.”
The Record Patriot recently published some of the findings from the Kids Count in Michigan report issued by the Michigan League for Public Policy, which included increases in child abuse allegations and confirmed victims in Benzie County since 2010. The 2021 report showed a 29.1% increase in investigated families, and a 112.9% increase in confirmed victims, since the base line study in 2010. The 2020 Kids Count in Michigan study found a 71.8 increase in investigated families, and a 33.7% increase in confirmed victims since 2010.
Manistee County similarly saw an increase in the 2021 Kids Count report, with a 22.1% increase in investigated families and a 50.4% increase in confirmed victims. Ginger Kadlec, executive director of the Traverse Bay Children's Advocacy Center, said those numbers could mean a variety of things, and that 2020 was an atypical year when it came to child abuse.
"Last year was really a bit of an anomaly because of the pandemic," Kadlec said. "Child advocacy centers saw the number of forensic interviews drop drastically (as the pandemic shut down schools). We didn't have eyes on the kids. The kids were home from school, and mandated reporters in schools are almost 60% of our reports. I can't even tell you how absolutely huge the role schools play; they are the primary reporting source, across the country."
Kadlec said there was a huge drop of cases reported between February and March, and then a huge spike in the summer months, when people started gathering again. "Kids were out of the house and families started to leave their bubbles and get together," she said. "Then the number of reports and investigations began to drop again in the fall."
Kadlec said reports and interviews started up again in January, when many kids were back to school permanently. She also said it was hard to interpret the numbers as a negative or a positive.
"It is hard to tell if child abuse is increasing or if it is just an increase in reporting," Kadlec said. "There is no way to know 100% for certain. It could be a good thing because it means more people are reporting alleged or suspected child abuse." She did say that during the pandemic, many of the calls were from children themselves, and that allegations of sexual abuse dropped, while allegations of physical abuse rose.
"Home wasn't a safe place for everybody in 2020," Kadlec said.
"People were at home, isolated and experiencing the stressors of the pandemic. Family stressors that were already there were intensified." It was widely reported that cases of domestic violence also rose during 2020. Benzie County Prosecutor Sara Swanson said that her office saw more cases, and that some of those cases were more violent than those seen before.
Kadlec said ideally, a bell curve in the number of child abuse allegations and confirmed cases would indicate things trending in the right direction. "We'll see an increase of allegations and cases as people take action and stand up for kids," she said. "It will take years to see it trend downward hopefully because there are fewer cases and people and children get the resources they need. Ideally, there would be no need for our services."
Traverse Bay Children's Advocacy Center provides forensic interviews, advocacy support, and mental health services to children in Benzie, Antrim, Kalkaska, Wexford, Leelnau and Grand Traverse counties, as well as the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. They have trained forensic interviewers who speak with children who may have be experience abuse, as well as non-offending family members. They also educate people on what child abuse looks like and how the process of reporting and investigating works. They also have resources such as mental health services.
Children are interviewed in a safe space, and the interview is recorded, so children do not have to repeat their story multiple times. Partners and members of the advocacy center are multidiscipline, including child protective services workers, law enforcement and prosecutors.