In fiscal year 2004, Fairfax County's Child Protective Service's telephone hotline received 35,000 calls reporting suspected child abuse and neglect, or seeking guidance toward parenting programs and support services.
Although not all of those calls were directly reporting child abuse cases, last year Child Protective Services (CPS) investigated 2,310 cases of child abuse and/or neglect in the county.
Because child abuse and neglect cases occur more than reported, the county has begun a campaign to increase awareness about, and ultimately prevent, child abuse.
"We're trying to do earlier intervention and we can do that through volunteer services," said Susan Alexander, manager Fairfax County CPS. "It's hard to try to estimate how much there is out there that we're not seeing because that's just impossible to know."
Because of this, the county wants to educate the community about reporting abuse.
One way CPS has tried to increase reports is through a child abuse and neglect hotline [703-324-7400 ] where anonymous callers can address speculated abuse cases.
Through the hotline, callers give a CPS social worker the information and the social worker determines the actions to be taken depending on the severity of the offense.
ACCORDING TO CPS, in fiscal year 2003, the county investigated 2,022 cases abuse and neglect.
The majority of those cases focused on the lack of supervision of children, with 424 being "founded" cases and 509 of them involved children.
In addition to addressing neglect, CPS also investigates suspected incidents of physical abuse, mental or emotional abuse, medical neglect and sexual abuse by a child's caretaker.
"Sexual abuse has an impact on everyone in the family, not only victim but other members too," said Beth Iddings, sex abuse unit Fairfax County Child Protective Services. "The mother is typically not the offender, but she often blames herself for the abuse, or is in disbelief that the man she chose could do that."
Alexander said in any abuse case, if the situation is serious enough, a child may be taken out of the home.
But, she said, officials do everything they can to resolve the problem before that happens.
"Neglect is the most prominent form of abuse we see," she said. "Abandonment and similar situations, such as inadequate supervision, inadequate clothing, inadequate food or shelter, are all common."
IN 2004, 25 percent of the children abused in the county were 0 to 3 years old, according to CPS.
Alexander added that the county sees a "disproportionate number of Hispanic and African American children" that are removed from a home and placed into foster care.
She added this is "proportional with the rest of the country."
She also noted child abuse or neglect cases often follow the same theme.
"There's a certain population where we tend to see more cases," she said. "We'll see lower income families or young moms with two children or more, and based on their life growing up, they may have a lack of parenting or nurturing skills."
Unlike neglect cases, Iddings said sexual abusers do not follow a theme.
"Sexual abuse is definitely something that happens to every race, religion, ethnicity and income group," she said.
According to Iddings, when treating sexual abuse cases attention is given to the mother to help support her and allow her to make proper choices for her child or children.
"The victim, non-offenders and offenders get attention and then siblings feel left out," she said. "There are many dynamic changes and kids are well aware of problems in the family."
In addition, the offender goes through risk assessment with professionals and receives whatever therapy is necessary.
Alexander said the county also provides assistance programs for families.
These range from a nurturing parent program and programs for expectant and first-time parents to help for teen mothers and court-approved parenting classes for separating and divorced parents.
She added the county also has bilingual social workers and provides classes in Spanish, to assist all members of the community.
ONE WAY THE county is trying to raise awareness about child abuse in the community is through a increasingly popular Blue Ribbon Campaign.
Created by a coalition of individuals and organizations, the county's vision behind the campaign is to create a community where everyone recognizes and acts upon a shared responsibility to keep children safe.
First introduced in Virginia in 1989 by a grandmother who lost her grandson to abuse, the campaign is not only geared toward education but also empowerment.
The hope is the more witnesses are engaged, the more they will report child abuse and neglect.
"Statistically [children 0 to 3 years old] are much more at risk of having developmental disabilities due to abuse," said Alexander. "If we can identify, very young, a child that has been exposed to trauma in their lives, there is a way to intervene and help their development."
Iddings said the effects of sexual abuse also play a strong role in the development of children and their families, adding open communication could prevent potential abuse.
"Education has to be many fold and it has to start at home," she said, adding parents have to teach children about body parts and use proper names. "It's not a one-time thing, it has to be taught and retaught on a continual basis."
She said for parents with questions about behaviors, they can call the CPS hotline to learn what is normal sexual behavior for young children.
She added parents can be referred to programs through the hotline.
In addition to offering programs for parents and families, Alexander said the county is in need of mentors, foster and potential adoptive parents for children.
Explaining that the removal of a child from their home and family is the last resort, Alexander said if "imminent threat to the life of health of the child" exists removal can occur.
She added if this happens, every attempt is made to place the child with family members.
"When we can't assure their safety we will remove a child," she said. "But, I will tell you this, we try to get the abuser out of the home before trying to get the child out of the home."
For more information about county services or to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect call the hotline at 703-324-7400, or visit www.fairfaxcounty.gov/service/dfs/ChildrenYouth/AbuseNeglect.shtm.