It’s difficult to witness a child suffering from abuse, but it’s even more difficult to report child abuse only for nothing be done about it.
As April is Child Abuse Prevention month, California non-profit organization Advokids, which provides the only free telephone hotline to offer legal information for foster children in the state, is running a campaign to prevent child abuse reports from being ignored.
There are forms that exist for anyone who witnesses child abuse to demand their county to bring children under protection of the court if there is ongoing abuse.
Formal reporting of child abuse was the result of legislation passed in 1976 and amended in 1998, though many people are still unaware that there are forms available today that serve to file the report.
“Very few people in the community understand there are other steps to take if you really witness child abuse and it is ongoing,” Advokids Executive Director Margaret Coyne said. “This legislation was brought as a way so that no child slips through the cracks.”
The Juvenile Court Form JV-210 alerts the county of a concern, and if the county declines to act and the abuse continues, the Judicial Council Form JV-215 elevates the case to the judicial level, and the court has to review the county’s decision not to bring the case to the court.
These forms are not new, and Advokids has had this information on their website for about eight years.
Even people who are state-mandated reporters for child abuse are not equipped with information about the forms, Coyne said.
“The tools have always been there,” Coyne said. “These forms are not part of any state-mandated reporter training. It’s really kind of horrifying.”
Coyne points to the death of eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez as an example. The elementary schooler from Palmdale was being severely and repeatedly abused by his mother and mother’s boyfriend for months, eventually leading to his death in 2013. Though Fernandez’s teacher, among others, reported the abuse, social workers left the child in the home and did not pursue further investigation.
If the teacher and loved-ones had known about the need to fill out the forms to expedite the process and get the child help, he could have been saved, Coyne said.
“After the Gabriel Fernandez death, it became very clear to us that nobody knew about these tools,” she said. “We hear from so many people who care about children. Nobody understands this legal process.”
Not only is it important for one witness to fill out the forms, but as many people who notice child abuse as possible, she said.
“That would be very powerful, if your presiding judge had five, six or seven forms filed on behalf of one child,” Coyne said. “As community members, let’s all take responsibility for filing these forms.”
For those who want to support the campaign, Coyne encourages people to print posters off the Advokids site to post in classrooms, offices and breakrooms, as well as share information on social media.
Santa Clarita’s Child and Family Center also offers for child abuse prevention, including in-home counseling, parent education, group therapy and mental health assessments. Group therapy allows children to know they are not alone in their experiences and parent education informs parents of proper disciplining techniques without violence.
Vice President of Clinical Services Kelly Morehouse-Smith said the organization, which serves about 700 children and families a month, provides trauma treatment for all children who suffer from family violence.
“These are all children who have been impacted in some way, shape or form by child abuse,” Morehouse-Smith said. “We really need to be successful to help children process the trauma and come out on the other side.”
Morehouse-Smith said the center is not aware of the JV-210 or JV-215 forms, but uses internal protocols to make reports to the Department of Child and Family Services.
According to UC Berkeley data, almost 500,000 children are reported to have suffered abuse in California in 2016, and nearly 80,000 of those cases are substantiated.
To report child abuse in Los Angeles County, call 800-540-4000.
On Twitter as @ginaender