As Child Abuse Prevention Month comes to a close, I cannot help but reflect on the importance of that mission. I am often haunted by the tragic 2007 abuse death of 10-year-old Michaela Watkins of Winchester. Her autopsy revealed injuries all over her 77-pound body.
She was literally covered with bruises and scrapes. Even her eyeballs were bruised. She had been scalded and bitten. She was malnourished. The cause of her death was a crushing injury to her chest which broke five ribs and collapsed her left lung.
She tried to fight back, but she was helpless to stop the vicious abuse perpetrated by her very own father and stepmother, later convicted for her murder.
The most haunting fact of all for me about Michaela's tragedy is that it might have been avoided.
There were family members and neighbors who suspected she was at risk, but did not report their concerns. All too often people are reluctant to get involved in the private lives of others. They think only doctors and teachers have a duty to report suspected child abuse. They are mistaken.
Every person has an affirmative duty under Kentucky law to immediately report suspected child abuse and neglect.
Failure to report is a crime which carries a potential penalty of 90 days in jail and a fine.
The statistics highlight the importance of public awareness of the duty to report suspected child abuse in Kentucky. Our state consistently ranks among the highest for victim and fatality rates from child abuse and neglect.
Roughly half of those statistics involve children age five and younger. Children under the age of one suffer the highest rates of all.
While death is the worst possible outcome of child abuse and neglect, the potential long-term consequences for survivors are sobering.
According to a recent report published by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, those consequences include impaired brain development, lower IQ, language difficulties, increased chance of grade repetition, increased risk of personality disorders and other mental health problems, increased risk of substance abuse, and increased risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, lung and liver disease, hypertension, diabetes, asthma and obesity.
The societal costs are also staggering.
One study estimates the annual cost of child maltreatment exceeds the costs associated with stroke and type II diabetes, combined. The indirect economic costs are difficult to quantify but not difficult to imagine.
They include increased burdens on the health-care and mental-health systems, increased burdens on our juvenile and adult justice systems, and increased burdens on our welfare safety net.
There is good news amidst all the bad. Tragedies, like what happened to Michaela Watkins, can be prevented.
But first, we must all acknowledge that when it comes to child abuse in Kentucky, there are no innocent bystanders.
To report suspected child abuse or neglect call 1-877-KYSAFE1 or contact the Kentucky State Police or local law enforcement. You can also visit http://chfs.ky.gov/dcbs/dpp/childsafety.htm for more information on how to report.
For more information on how to prevent child abuse or to find ways to get involved in that mission, go to the Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky website, pcaky.com.