by Dana Gray
As people statewide rejoice over a decrease in Vermont2s child abuse victims, those of us closer to home can take comfort that children in the Northeast Kingdom are also increasingly becoming safer.
When Gov. Howard Dean boasted earlier this month that the number of child victims in the state has been steadily decreasing, his encouraging punch was packed in part by successes in Orleans, Essex and Caledonia counties.
The Newport and St. Johnsbury offices of Social and Rehabilitation Services report decreases in physical and sexual abuse cases. Age groups broken up into ages birth to 3, birth to 6 and all others under age 18 indicate fewer child victimization almost every year.
Between the Newport and St. Johnsbury SRS offices, all three counties are covered; Orleans and northern Essex by Newport's office and Caledonia and southern Essex by the St. Johnsbury office.
Director of both offices, Thomas Pristow said fewer child victims in the Northeast Kingdom means increased interaction among the area services available to children and their parents.
He said while the number of child victims is generated out of the SRS office, the success is shared. He said the declining number of victims is the payoff from different programs in the community designed to solve potentially abusive situations.
"It is the result of education, mental health, Northeast Kingdom Community Action and other non-profit organizations working together," said Pristow.
"We'll succeed together or we'll fail together," Pristow said.
The numbers showing the decline in victims are based on the number of cases investigated by SRS. Pristow said the numbers are a good indication of actual victims because SRS' investigating criteria has broadened.
SRS will substantiate physical abuse if any mark is found on the child's body.
Calls come into the SRS offices from many different sources. An intake worker fields the calls and a determination is made whether to investigate. A decreased number of victims means fewer SRS investigations based on fewer calls to the office. And Pristow said community work is the key.
He identified community-based programs that he believes add up to declining numbers of victims.
There is the Parent Educator Program, which brings workers and parents together for lessons on basic skills in the home in order to make the home a better environment for a child.
The Intensive Family Base Services is more intensive than the Parent Educator Program. It deals with family relationships.
Even more intensive is the Family Preservation Access, funded by a federal grant. Mental health and SRS now provide the service to families that are interested. Its offer is improved parenting achieved with the help of a worker.
Another option is provided through youth services. It is the shelter program that allows children a place to stay until problems with home-life are worked out.
"We've worked really hard to find different ways to make the community work together better because the money does dry up," said Pristow. Money that will be drying up in a year is the federal grant used to fund the Family Preservation Access.
Julie Wright, Child and Family Crisis Worker at Northeast Kingdom Mental Health said Access has had a "huge effect."
"The whole purpose of Access is to be more creative to provide services in the community and to knock down roadblocks so (children) can remain in the family," she said.
Wright said because the money for the program does stop in a year, efforts to make the program self-sustaining are being explored.
Pristow said it's the key issue that makes interaction so beneficial in the fight against child abuse.
"The money flow is so up and down that communication is the key to make the system work," said Pristow
In Newport, Pristow said, a Consumer Advisory Panel was created to open communication lines between SRS and families with which SRS is involved. He said the St. Johnsbury office is also looking to establish such communication.
"We do make mistakes, but we're accountable for them and will work to improve," said Pristow. "We're not perfect but we're striving to look at ways to keep children safe," said Pristow.