The four adults who are accused of beating and starving the boy managed to keep their alleged abuses behind closed doors, something that wouldn’t necessarily be hard to do in our suburban communities. As Carol Carrillo, the executive director of the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Contra Costa County, recently told me, “We don’t know our neighbors that well. We used to know people better. We’ve gotten away from that—it’s a cliché’—but it takes a village to raise a child. It takes all of us to keep kids safe.”
Carrillo points out that this boy’s case—and that of a 14-year-old girl found dead in her Antioch home in September, also the victim of long-term abuse and neglect, are “extreme.”
At the same time, Carrillo echoes concerns expressed by other professionals at crisis support, domestic violence, mental health, and substance abuse agencies: the recession is stressing people out and more people are calling these agencies desperate for help. Men and women are losing their homes or jobs, or they are worried about losing either. Some are drinking more or turning to drugs. Moms and dads are fighting with each other over finances, and parents at home alone with the kids—and worried about where the next meal is coming from—are losing their tempers, lashing out.
To Carrillo, kids are the most vulnerable among us amid this economic turmoil. It’s just as likely to find kids at risk of being neglected and abused in poor parts of Contra Costa County as it in more affluent areas. In fact, it’s likely that kids in Lamorinda, Walnut Creek, and the San Ramon Valley are in an especially precarious position if their parents are in crisis. That’s because the parents might not want their neighbors or family members to know that they are struggling to maintain that outward veneer of prosperity and emotional well-being.
“If these families are going through hard times, they’re going to keep things quiet,” Carrillo says. “It’s embarrassing, particularly in communities like Orinda and Danville. They have an image to uphold. So they’re not going to share as much.”
Substance abuse is also a lot more common in these communities than we might think, she says, which leads to kids being neglected or abused. “Kids are being put in risky situations.”
Actually, the inaction of the neighbors in the Tracy and Antioch cases—understandable or not—prompted me to call Carrillo ask if there is anything a regular person like me can do if she notices something a bit off about a child in her neighborhood or in her child’s school community.
I think that we, even in comfortable towns like Walnut Creek, have all encountered those kids—around our neighborhoods or in our kids’ schools—who seem a bit, well, lost. You hear about how they act out in class, have problems at home, and show up dirty, unkempt, tired, or unprepared for schoolwork. You see them around the neighborhood, even after dark, wandering by themselves, maybe even buying themselves a dinner of a hot dog and a Big Gulp at the neighborhood 7-Eleven. And you wonder, is anyone watching out for this kid? Or, you wonder, whether this child has a loving single mom or dad who is struggling to get by in this community and can’t afford child care.
Maybe this kid isn’t being abused, or even neglected in the legal sense. He has a mom or dad who is doing the best she or he can. But then, how do you know? And when or how do you step in? A neighbor in the Tracy case recalled seeing the victim around the house, keeping to himself, looking smaller and younger than his 16 years. She thought he didn’t seem to be going to school, but then she didn’t know the family that well, and she figured she didn’t know the situation well enough to judge or intervene.
Obviously, it’s a tough call to make, especially for a regular person like me who is not specially trained, like a social worker, to spot child abuse.
But Carrillo offers some tips on how we might intervene if we’re worried about a kid.
–If you know of a family in your neighborhood and child’s school community that
is going through tough times, you can offer to help the family out, say, by offering to cook them meals or to take care of their kids for the afternoon.
–At the same time, if a family is going through a tough time, they shouldn’t be ashamed to ask their neighbors for help, Carrillo says. “Parents feel like if they ask for help or support, they are being a bad parent. To ask for help means you’re being a good parent. People should really be reaching out, instead of closing the garage door and not interacting with the community.”
–If you hear that a kid in your child’s school may be in trouble at home, you can mention it to that child’s teacher. It’s likely the teacher is already be aware that something in that child’s home amiss, but your information can offer additional perspective, with which the teacher, school principal or counselor can approach the family and see if there is a way to help.
–If you strongly suspect a child is in serious trouble and in imminent risk of harm, call police or Child Protective Services. “They’ll be the ones to screen the situation. If you’re really feeling that something is not right, always report it.”
Here are the numbers to report suspected child abuse:
Contra Costa County Children and Family Services
West County (510) 374-3324; Central County (925) 646-1680; East County (925) 427-8811
And, here are some important facts about child abuse, published on the website for Carrillo’s organization:
–In Contra Costa County during 2006 there were 9,516 reports of suspected
–Circumstances that place parents under substantial stress is likely to increase the risk of child abuse i.e., mental and physical illness, economic stress, drug abuse, isolation.
–Neglected or sexually abused children may not show any physical signs of harm.
–Reporting child abuse does not automatically mean the child will be removed from the home.
–Programs offering help can positively impact a family at risk and can prevent child abuse.
–Supporting a stressed parent or caregiver helps both the parent and the child.
–Child abuse is 100 percent preventable. Please call and ask us how you can help.
The Child Abuse Council offers free referrals to child abuse prevention, intervention and treatment services in Contra Costa County, among many other services. It also publishes Surviving Parenthood, a comprehensive list of services available for children and families in Contra Costa County. You can access this list online, or by calling or visiting the council’s Concord office at (925) 798-0546, 1410 Danzig Plaza, Suite 110, 94520; or the Antioch satellite office at (925) 755-4200, 301 West 10th St., Suite 2, 94509.
For general information and referral to critical health and human services please call 211. This 211 number callers with information about and referral services for everyday needs and in times of crisis. For example, 211 offers access to the following types of services: food banks, clothing closets, shelters, rent assistance, health insurance programs, Medicaid and Medicare, support groups, counseling, education programs.