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Experts explain abuse investigations

EDITOR'S' NOTE: To highlight Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month, a number of events have been scheduled for the community. This story focuses on one of them.

EDITOR'S' NOTE: To highlight Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month, a number of events have been scheduled for the community. This story focuses on one of them.

As a 2-year-old teacher for Family Forum Head Start in Superior, Cheryl Moder spends her days surrounded by children. Like day care providers and school staff, she is mandated to report suspected child abuse. But once reports are made to law enforcement or the Department of Health and Human Services, they seem to disappear into a black hole.

"You get a letter a few days later saying whether they are looking into it or not," Moder said. "Sometimes you never hear from them again."

Last week, about 40 of these mandatory reporters gathered at the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College to learn more about the investigation process behind that letter.

Reports are accepted by both law enforcement and the human services department, with one big difference.

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"We may not be able to keep your name out of the report," said Detective John Parenteau of the Douglas County Sheriff's Department. Under open records laws, the name of the person who reported the abuse may come out during court proceedings. Human services, on the other hand, can keep the reporter's name confidential.

Even after 26 years with the Superior Police Department, Master Detective Joe Krieg said he is surprised every time he handles a child abuse case.

"There's always something new," he said.

It's up to law enforcement and human services to determine if, under statutes, child abuse is occurring.

"Every morning, my staff and I meet, do screening and look at all the reports that came in the previous day," said Brita Rekve, human service supervisor, intake and assessment unit, for Douglas County. Based on state standards, the case is either screened in or screened out.

Both law enforcement officers and Rekve said they understood that people who report cases may be disappointed or upset with the outcome.

"You know that there are bad parents out there," Rekve said. "Being a bad parent isn't something the state of Wisconsin considers grievous enough for us to screen a report in."

A parent may swear at their child, leave them alone, raise them in a filthy house, she said. That doesn't necessarily mean child abuse is occurring.

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Once a case is screened in, the intake and assessment unit has 60 days to do a complete interview of parents, child, teachers and others to determine if the case is substantiated -- meets the state standards to show abuse is occurring.

After 60 days, the case is referred to an ongoing social worker. The human services department has options ranging from connecting families with services in the community to removing children from the home.

"It's the safety of the kids that's our primary concern," Rekve said.

In a question and answer session following the presentation, those attending asked when they should report suspected child abuse.

"If you are thinking 'Should I report or not,' make the call," Rekve said.

In fact, Parenteau said, a mandatory reporter who doesn't pick up the phone could face criminal penalties of up to $1,000 in fines and six months in jail.

Is it beneficial for multiple people to report the same issue, the experts were asked.

"Absolutely," Rekve said. "Everyone has a different perspective."

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And even if one single incident isn't enough to meet state abuse standards, she said, sometimes a number of events can "tip the scale" to get a case screened in.

Community service providers were also included in the panel. Marcia Domecq, youth treatment services coordinator, spoke about options available through the Human Development Center. She highlighted treatment options and the wraparound program, which pulls community members together with the family to build a plan for their future.

Families with children from ages birth to 6 can find support and friendship through the Family Resource Center, located at Northern Lights Elementary School. The center focuses on family strengths, said manager Donna Matlock, while providing parenting classes, a lending library and socialization.

"We're not just there for a fun place to be," she said. "We're trying to meet community need.

The staff at FRC make it a priority to make everyone who walks in their door feel comfortable.

"There's a reason that they come through my door," Matlock said. "Because we all need help somewhere down the line."

Those who attended the event said it was very worthwhile.

"I just really wanted to hear more details about the process when you do make the report," said Amy Warring, a counselor at Superior Middle School. She said she would let staff members know that multiple reports are encouraged.

"I feel it was nice to see faces of people you do call when you need help," said Denise Goedhart, a teachers assistant with Family Forum Head Start.

And, both said, it was nice to hear that law enforcement and human services work well together in Douglas County.

"The relationship we've forged together is really hard to beat," Rekve said.

Related Topics: CRIMESUPERIOR
Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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