DeKALB – When Valarie Redmond’s 3-year-old daughter Alexandria frustrates her, she sings.
Redmond might not earn any accolades for her vocals, but some say a gold star for parenting patience might be in order.
Redmond is part of the Healthy Families Illinois program, a voluntary program run by Children’s Home + Aid aimed at preventing child abuse by working with first-time mothers.
“Before, I think my first inclination would have been to spank,” Redmond said. “Now, I’m not there. I’m telling her to use her words so I have to use my words. The whole way I think about discipline is different.”
Unlike Alexandria, some children in DeKalb County aren’t disciplined with songs, dancing, or a timeout.
Substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect have increased in DeKalb County and statewide, according to reports from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, prompting local agencies to speak out during April, which is Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Response to the growing numbers
Documented cases of child abuse and neglect in DeKalb County increased 22 percent year-over-year in 2013, to 177 from 145, according to the Illinois Kids Count survey released by the advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children.
There was a 4.5 percent increase statewide, up to 27,888 cases from 26,682.
DCFS defines child abuse as mistreatment of a child younger than 18 that results in or puts the child in danger of serious injury that can be physical, sexual or mental. Neglect entails failing to provide children with adequate clothing, shelter, food, medical care or other basic needs.
Children’s Home + Aid, a statewide nonprofit organization with an office in Sycamore, aims to curb child abuse by helping before there’s a problem, said program supervisor Kathy Hicks.
Family support workers visit mothers once a week beginning as early as six months into pregnancy. Visits continue less frequently until participants graduate, usually when their children are about 3.
“The overall idea is to prevent child abuse and to help mom and child connect and bond,” Hicks said.
Redmond is one of the 55 local clients Children’s Home + Aid can serve at a time. Another 25 local families are on a waiting list, Hicks said.
“I think we’re extremely successful, and we make a difference, but there are a lot of people we can’t get to,” Hicks said.
Redmond started in the program when she was 25 after she gave birth to her daughter. At the time she was in a relationship with Alexandria’s father and pursuing a master’s degree in counseling from Northern Illinois University.
“I was having anxiety about being the best parent I could be,” Redmond said.
Now 29, Redmond is a single mom studying for her counseling master’s, working and raising Alexandria. She said the program helped her set parenting goals and showed her ways to connect with her daughter.
She puts stars on a chart when Alexandria does something good and warns Alexandria about a purple timeout chair when she misbehaves. Mother and daughter also like to sing to each other.
“I’ll be honest, I got whuppings when I was growing up,” Redmond said. “Now, I know there are different ways to acknowledge her actions and the consequences.”
Holly Peifer, the director of the Children’s Advocacy Center at Family Service Agency, explained that using corporal punishment or yelling at children, while common, are not the best methods because they can quickly escalate.
“It only takes a second for it to go too far,” Peifer said. “It could be seen as violence in the child’s mind, and it’s coming from someone they trust.”
After abuse happens
Peifer’s organization takes referrals from law enforcement and the DCFS after an allegation has been made. A forensic interviewer questions the child while other officials watch from behind a two-way mirror, eliminating the need for multiple interviews and reducing the trauma for the child.
“People are asking them 100 questions about something they never wanted to talk about in the first place,” Peifer said. “On top of that, they think no one believes them. This way, we can make kids comfortable.”
On average, the local Children’s Advocacy Center handles 120 investigations a year, but Peifer suspects the number will be higher this year because there are already 81 open investigations.
A vast majority of the cases she sees are children who have been abused by family members or someone close to the family. She said the rising number of child abuse cases are not shocking.
“It’s not at all a surprise to me,” Peifer said. “There are a lot of people who think child abuse only happens in big cities. It’s important for people to realize it can happen here, too.”
Jill Olson, executive director for Court Appointed Special Advocates in DeKalb County, said less financial, supportive or other resources, could be behind the number of cases her agency sees.
Last year CASA helped 204 DeKalb County children, about the same number they helped the year before.
A special advocate from CASA is appointed to every case of child abuse and neglect that goes through the DeKalb County court system. Advocates are everyday people who volunteer and are appointed by the court as the guardian ad litem, representing the child’s best interests in court proceedings.
“Many times children have no voice,” Olson said. “What’s important is that every child is important.”
Abuse or neglect can be reported by calling the DCFS hotline 1-800-25-ABUSE.