Officials discuss child abuse/neglect issues

By Terri Flagg -

As April, the month designated National Child Abuse Prevention Month, came to a close, a Mount Airy mother implicated in the 2012 death of her five-month-old infant was scheduled to appear in court.

On May 10, Billie Jo Floyd will face charges of second-degree murder and child abuse in Surry County Superior Court.

Joseph Wayne Maker, a co-defendant, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and child abuse in March 2015 and sent to prison for upwards of eight years, according to information available on the N.C. Department of Public Safety website.

The infant’s death made headlines in 2012 when authorities announced the charges, and likely will again if Floyd’s case is disposed in May.

The case is an extreme example of the daily and ongoing effort put forth by the various agencies, courts, law enforcement and advocacy groups charged with keeping children and families safe.

Kate Appler, district administrator of the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program for Stokes and Surry County, points out that child abuse is a complex problem with other forces at work besides bad parents and bad people.

The GAL program assigns a volunteer or staff member to advocate in court for children who who have been removed from their home.

“The vase majority of cases are neglect, not physical abuse or sexual abuse,” said Appler, estimating that of the cases in the system about 80 percent involve neglect, 15 percent physical abuse, and 5 percent sexual abuse.

“Neglect involves drug abuse number one and domestic violence, number two,” Appler said.

“That’s something that people in the community need to understand. The drugs are wreaking havoc on children and families.”

Children involved in neglect cases can experience significant emotional and psychological trauma.

“When a parents number one concern is to get more drugs, a lot of these children get ‘parentized,’” said Appler, describing a common phenomenon where children take care of their parents instead of the other way around.

Child abuse and neglect impacts the community through and beyond the individuals directly involved.

“It’s a lot of resources that go into any neglect or abuse situation,” said Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-90, who chairs non-standing Committee on Homeless Youth, Foster Care and Dependency and a standing committee on Children, Youth, and Families for the General Assembly.

“It’s very labor intensive,” she said.

Children who age out of the foster care system before a permanent home has been established are at increased risk of academic failure, unplanned pregnancy and criminal involvement, according to information provided by the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina.

In its committee presentation, the organization also shared statewide statistics obtained from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Jordan Institute for Families website.

The total number of North Carolina youth in custody rose from about 8,900 in 2010 to 10,3000 in 2015, and the median time in custody increased by 15 percent.

The number of youths aging out was also shown to be on the rise.

Appler said the GAL program for Judicial District 17-B, which covers Stokes and Surry County, currently handles about 135 cases.

About 80 of those cases come from Stokes County, which has a smaller population than Surry by about 25,000.

Forsyth County, with about a population of about three times the size of Stokes and Surry Counties combined, has about the same number of cases.

Appler noted that it’s tough to draw conclusions regarding the prevalence or severity of child welfare from these numbers, as they only reflects cases with Department of Social Services involvement, and that agency’s approach may vary from county to county.

Michael Lineback, program manager of Surry County DSS, said in that in March, 91 reports were made to the agency, 54 of those accepted for assessment, 13 were opened for case management, and 56 children were currently in foster care.

He reported similar numbers from February.

“It’s hard to track,” Lineback said. “I don’t know there’s a trend to it. It’s just the reality of what we face today.”

Lineback estimated that the prevalence of child abuse is likely similar to other rural counties of a similar population.

“We deal with the same types of problems,” such as unemployment, substance abuse, and domestic violence, he said.

“Those are the three biggest issues in neglect and child abuse cases.”

Stokes and Surry County District Court Judge William Southern shared a similar observation.

“I do agree that substance abuse, domestic violence and mental health issues are the greatest challenges we see throughout our court system,” the judge said in an email.

“Abuse, neglect and dependency court highlights these issues since the welfare of children is directly affected by the negative choices of their parents or caregivers.”

Lineback and Appler both pointed to a lack of local substance abuse and mental health treatment options.

“There’s just not a lot available and what is available has to be piecemealed out,” Lineback said.

Stevens said the state law makers are working to improve child welfare in the state and locally, referring to legislation passed in 2015 that increased a child’s eligibility to be in the foster care system from 18 to 21.

This year, the representative said she’s interested in pursuing legislation that would make it easier and faster to terminate parental rights with the goal of achieving stability faster.

A group of GAL volunteers from Surry County spoke to Stevens recently to share observations about what was working and not working in the system.

“We’re trying to find out where the problems are,” Stevens said. As for solutions, “I’m am open to all kinds of suggestions.”

By Terri Flagg

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

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