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Community can help fight child abuse

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By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

PERRY COUNTY - Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part story published in observance of National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Part 1, published Monday, described concerns by Amy Tempel, a supervisor in the Perry County office of the Indiana Department of Child Services, that arrests for methamphetamine possession or production are increasingly behind needs to remove children from their homes.

When a home with children is found to have meth, a child-services case worker is sent to it, but doesn't go inside. Law-enforcement officers in protective gear bring children out and provide information such as how many children are involved and whether the home was used for making or just using the drug. The case worker will make a recommendation, but a judge must issue an order to remove children.

"We try to place each child with a relative, someone they' re familiar with," Tempel said, "but sometimes the whole family is involved in drugs."

When a family member can be located who might serve as a suitable guardian, he or she must undergo a background check.

"We don't want to move the child from one dangerous situation to another," the child-services supervisor said.

In best-case scenarios, a relative can be located and checked out quickly enough that he or she can meet the caseworker at the hospital. In other circumstances, a quick trip to a store is necessary to buy clothing and other items the child will need, such as a toothbrush, before foster care is secured.

In either case, the caseworker gathers as much information as possible about the child or children to ease their transition to temporary living arrangements.

"Ultimately, our goal is to reunite children with their parents," Tempel said. "It's very traumatic for them to be hauled out and have their lives disrupted."

As children are given sanctuary, parents go through drug court and can be ordered to undergo testing and substance-abuse education. Parent-aid services can help them with issues such as discipline, budgeting, or "anything to help a parent become self-sufficient," Tempel said. "Any need we find, we do our best to address it."

Some people see drug abusers as nothing more than drains on the community's resources. Tempel isn't so quick to discard them.

"Every single person has worth," she said. "One person's drug addiction could be another's food or gambling addiction. I have seen many parents who are very loving and caring, who are trying to kick that drug addiction. We try to help them be good parents who are drug- and substance-abuse free."

"There are some who are so heavily involved," she continued, "that we' re fighting an uphill battle. But it's a battle we need to fight on behalf of the children. If it's in their best interest, children should be at home."

Even drug abusers have faces, names and children, she said. The children often understand that what their parents are doing is wrong, "but they still love them very much," she pointed out.

"Part of what the state is doing now is really involving the family in decision-making from the start," Tempel explained. That tactic replaces an older one in which the state workers dictated, "you have a drug problem, you have to do this and that," she said.

Parents now choose their own support groups, while the child-services office ensures they' re accountable.

"They are vested in the process," Tempel said. "It's their plan for getting their children back. They like having a say, being heard and that what they say matters."

People do things, including abusing drugs, for reasons, she explained. Some are "self-medicating" to contend with issues like sexual abuse.

"They tell us their family stories," Tempel said. "We often have preconceived ideas about people having children when they' re young, and becoming an addict. We want them to be healthy and successful families where there's no abuse or neglect."

When drug abuse is part of a home life, neglect is a more common phenomenon than abuse, she said. The home remains dirty and children may not be required to attend school.

But the big factor, Tempel said, is parents who use or make meth are likely to be poisoning their children. And due to the explosive nature of ingredients used in its production, their homes are time bombs.

Community members can help fight child abuse in various ways, she said. The first is to report anything that might be abuse. Tempel said only about 25 percent of the abuse calls her office receives are substantiated, but that's OK.

"The case managers here do a thorough job of checking them out," she said. "If it's nothing, that's good. But if there's something to it, we' re glad we' ve done something and made a difference."

"We don't reveal the source of any reports," she added.

Another way community members can help is to offer their homes for foster care.

"It's a very difficult job," Tempel warned. "You have to have a lot of patience with children and with the system. I'd be happy to talk to anyone to see if they'd be interested."

Anyone who feels they might be driven to abuse their own children can get help, Tempel added. Parenting classes are available that can teach them how to deal with temper tantrums, for example. A Community Partners Program can help people who "may not meet our criteria, but need help," she added.

Officials at the local and state levels want to cut rates at which some parents are involved in activities endangering their children, she said. They ask, "is it OK for the child to return home?" and work to ensure permanence, she explained. "We don't want to continue the cycle. there's a big push from the state - we don't want foster care for two or three years at a time."

"If a parent can't be successful, we have to move on. Where a parent can't come through, I love to see adoptions occur. You might not like how you got there, but you like the outcome."

There is hope for the children and parents, the child-services supervisor said.

"One of the biggest things I enjoy is when a family reunifies, and a parent comes back to say thanks for the help," she said. "That's what we want, for families to be functional and happy and for children to have a positive environment."