Child abuse reports surge in county

Reports of child abuse in San Mateo County have risen at a rate not seen in more than a decade, a new study says.

More than 4,500 children were referred to Child Protective Services in 2006, about 3 percent of the county’s children, according to an annual report by Sustainable San Mateo County, a community-based organization.

The rate of abuse cases reported in the county increased to 27.8 referrals per 1,000 children in 2006 as compared with 24.9 in 2005. In 1998, the rate stood at 24.6.

More incidents of abuse were reported for the county’s black children, with approximately 100 referrals per 1,000 children, the report said. Native American and Hispanic children were also above the overall county rate, at about 44 and 34 referrals per 1,000, respectively. There were more reports of girls abused than boys, the report indicates.

“Children are the future of our region and this indicator in the report puts into perspective what needs to be done to nurture this issue,” said Brian Foley, a spokesman for Sustainable San Mateo County.

In 2006, general neglect and substantial risk of abuse accounted for more than half of all referrals, according to the report. More than 242 children entered the foster care system that year, slightly higher than in the previousyear.

County health officials said that while the figures might appear shocking, they aren’t necessarily pointing to a negative trend.

Renee Smylie, director of the county’s Children and Family Services Department, said she believes the numbers show that more families are aware of and using San Mateo County’s child abuse hot line.

She said the county is one of 11 in the state that offers “differential response,” a new preventive program she said might be leading to an increase in calls. The hot line addresses calls from less severe child welfare cases — ones that traditionally receive little attention — so that the county can refer them to community groups for assistance.

“If we can refer some of those low-risk cases to community organizations that can provide the necessary services, than maybe we can prevent families ending up in worse circumstances,” Smylie said.

Smylie said the county has amped up public outreach efforts in recent years, providing education on child abuse and referrals to various services. “My standard advice to people is that if there are any concerns, they should report it to a child abuse hotline and know that the county is there to provide services. … We really want to keep these families together,” she said.

Smylie said the county receives an average of 400 calls to the child welfare hot line number each month.

maldax@examiner.com

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