Preventing child abuse
In 1983, April was declared National Child Abuse Prevention month. Since then, it has been a time for communities and families to recognize, work together, and raise awareness to prevent child abuse.
Shari Kottke, Child and Family Social Services manager at Minnesota Prairie County Alliance, which serves Dodge, Steele, and Waseca counties, noted that the organization receives around 1,500 calls a year for possible cases of child abuse and neglect.
“We have seen an increase in the number of calls to the agency to report possible child abuse over the last four years,” Kottke explained. “Social services look at those and make a decision on how to respond.”
Every morning a screening team comprised of MN Prairie employees, members of law enforcement, and members of county attorney offices review the calls and make a determination on whether or not to act, and what the appropriate response should be.
Some calls are referred to voluntary child welfare, others to community organizations, and some are handled internally by MN Prairie. “We respond in multiple ways,” Kottke said. Criminal cases are handled by area law enforcement.
“I think we do a really good job of working together,” she said. “Coming together in partnerships to make decisions and to think through the issues.”
Kottke also explained their close working relationship with area law enforcement. “They attend our family screening, and we’re in constant contact with them,” she said. “There’s some specific investigations that require interviews with children, so we work closely together in some situations.”
Detective Sgt. Josh Sorensen with Owatonna Police is currently assigned to investigations relating to child abuse and credits organizations like MN Prairie and the community for a continued awareness.
“I think there’s a lot more awareness for us to detect it with different counselors and programs,” he explained. “That’s a credit to a whole realm of things.”
Sorensen believes that the public has a role to play in child abuse prevention. “To prevent child abuse, the public being open to seeing some signs that something may be going on with the child is vital,” he said. “A lot of those can be non-verbal.”
Kottke explained that some obvious signs include bruises, or children who are left alone, also certain behaviors by the parents can be a sign that something may not be right. “Sometimes there’s a good explanation and sometimes it’s a concern,” she said. “If you see something and are concerned, say something. It never hurts to call and have a conversation with us.”
“There’s a lot of different programs that do a good job of helping people,” Sorensen said of organizations like MN Prairie or the Crisis Resource Center. “It’s nice to have those resources in town to help people. We handle the criminal side of things so they can do a lot more long-term work and guide them more.”
He also preaches the importance of people within the community reaching out to organizations or law enforcement if they have concerns over a child’s welfare. “There’s times when people are hesitant to get involved, maybe they have an idea but are not sure, or feel it’s none of their business.”
“If it turns out to be nothing that’s fine, that’s why we do the due diligence to make sure the child is safe,” he said. “We’re there for the right reason, we’re there to protect.”
It is work that is both rewarding, and disheartening. “It can be taxing on a person the more you investigate,” Sorensen said. “We deal with the worst of the worst, and you’re dealing with children, but we do it for the right reason.”
“That’s what helps drive us, is knowing we’re making a difference,” he explained. “It can be hard to see how bad a child’s life has been in the short time they’re on this earth. In my job I can be the voice for that child, some of the kids we deal with can’t even talk. It’s rewarding to know that my job can affect the rest of their lives.”
Kottke confirms that post-secondary trauma is often the result of the job. “Our staff are exposed to trauma of children and adults, and sometimes we see things or hear things that are difficult and touch you emotionally,” she said.
“During the time you’re with the family you handle yourself and listen but when the day comes to a close and you’re not with the family you might have to lean on someone else,” Kottke explained. “We’re very aware at the supervisor level to talk to the staff on what they see and hear.”
Despite the heartbreak that sometimes comes with the job, it is work that Kottke is proud to do. “I find it amazing, really. This for me is not a job, it is a calling,” she said. Kottke noted that she has been working in child management for 30 years.
“I’m honored to work with families who are struggling and bring hope to lives,” she said. “If there are things that are happening that are difficult for you what can we do to partner with you to help you raise your child as best you can.”
Those who work with families know that it often comes with challenges. “It does take a village to raise a child,” Kottke said. “One of the keys to prevention is to support families at risk. Parenting is a really tough job and the stronger that support system they have the better they will do.”
Both Kottke and Sorensen stress the importance of community awareness and involvement in these issues. “Pay attention to kids within the community and get to know your neighbors,” Kottke said. “Meet them and talk to them and listen and be present and offer to help. There’s so many ways to offer to be present.”
By raising awareness and understanding the importance that communities, law enforcement, organizations, and families have in curbing this problem, preventing child abuse becomes an attainable goal within the community.
For those looking to report on children at risk, emails can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, or concerned individuals can call MN Prairie’s child and family service intake at 507-431-5725. For serious or emergency cases people are asked to alert the authorities by dialing 911.