As the economic downturn takes its toll on struggling families, child welfare workers across the region are seeing a marked rise in child abuse and neglect cases, with increases of more than 20 percent in some suburban counties.
Neglect investigations appear to have increased most, many resulting from families living without heat or electricity or failing to get children medical care. In Fairfax County, for example, such cases jumped 152 percent, from 44 to 111, comparing July through October with the same four-month period in 2007.
"It's very concerning and certainly is reflective of what's happening in the economic environment," said Kathy Froyd, director of the Children, Youth and Families Division of the Fairfax County Department of Family Services.
Overall, there was a 23 percent jump in abuse and neglect investigations in Fairfax. Similarly, cases in Montgomery County increased by 29 percent, and Arlington County, with smaller numbers, was up 38 percent.
In the District, there was an 18 percent increase in child neglect and abuse investigations, but officials said the case of Banita Jacks, the Southeast mother accused early this year of killing her four daughters, had a large effect on hotline calls.
The well-established nexus between poverty and child abuse is reason for many child experts to be concerned that the country might see more neglect and abuse as the recession deepens.
"History and experience tell us when the economy is bad and unemployment rises, children don't do well," said Linda Spears, vice president of the Child Welfare League of America, a national collection of nonprofit groups that aid abused and neglected children. "There are so many unknowns, but I would venture to guess that we're about to see one of the larger increases in child abuse cases since the drug epidemic increases in the 1990s."
Agnes Leshner, director of child welfare services for Montgomery, said that although other economic downturns might have produced similar trends, social workers in Montgomery agree that "they haven't seen it quite as severe as now. This seems to be more severe than what people can remember for a long time."
About a month ago, Allison Jackson began to notice an increase in the number of children coming into the emergency room at Children's National Medical Center in the District with burns, broken bones, fractured skulls and injured stomachs. Puzzled, she called colleagues across the country, who told her that they, too, noticed an increase in child abuse cases.
"We are all questioning whether it's the economy and the stresses that come with a bad economy," said Jackson, who is the medical director of the hospital's Child and Adolescent Protection Center.
That connection is more evident at the hotline centers, which get frazzled parents' calls for help.
On a recent night shift at the Prevent Child Abuse Virginia hotline call center, a woman called to say that she was pregnant and out of work and that her husband's hours had just been cut. She told the hotline that she feared her temper was flaring when she yelled at her 4-year-old son.