Growing problem goes unnoticed in Taylor County

GRAFTON—There is a growing problem in Taylor County, but most citizens aren’t even aware it is occurring, according to Assistant Prosecutor Shawn Nines.

Nines said that many individuals in the community don’t realize that the amount of child abuse and neglect cases has risen drastically in the past few years.

“The amount of cases has exploded in the last five years, but even more so in the last two or three years. It has almost doubled each year,” reported Nines. “Because of the confidential nature of the cases, many people don’t realize that we are handling three abuse and neglect cases, to every one criminal case.”

Nines confessed that the increase in the caseload is startling to even him.

“I have been handling these cases, and any resulting criminal cases, since I came back to Taylor County in 2007, and the increase in them surprises me. It is really very concerning,” expressed Nines.

He said for years, there would only be about 30 cases in a given year, but that number has jumped significantly. Last year, there were over 120 filed cases, and that so far for this year, there have been a reported 60 cases. Nines believes if the numbers continue to increase at the rate they have previously, his office will handle double the amount of last year.

“Our active cases are far more than the120 that are filed, because these cases are ongoing. They aren’t settled until the child involved is permanently placed,” shared Nines. “Think of it this way, at 120 cases, we would have had one case for each student in a graduating class at Grafton High School. That number is ridiculous.”

Nines disclosed that he believes the recent explosion of these types of cases is due to opiate drug use.

“I’d say about 90 percent of our cases have some type of drug component. Another 20 percent have sexual or physical abuse tied to it, and the overlapping 10 percent contain both,” reported Nines.

Nines said that a great deal of money and effort is put into the system to try and rehabilitate families, so that kids can stay with their parents, instead of having to be placed elsewhere.

“If a child is in a more heinous situation, where there is an immediate threat to the safety and wellbeing of a child, they will be removed immediately, but if the issue is because of drugs or some other factor, we give plenty of opportunities to fix the situation,” explained Nines. “If you take the drug aspect out of the equation, we would more than likely see a drop in these types of cases.”

Nines said that the amount of drug use and cases has put a strain on the whole  judicial system, and affects the foster care system, as well.

“When parents or guardians don’t make the necessary changes in order to keep custody of their children, the kids will sometimes be placed into the foster care system, with hopes of being adopted,” Nines shared. “The people who foster theses children are the unsung saints of these circumstances.”

Nines revealed that the prosecutor’s office isn’t initially involved in an abuse and neglect case. He said that first a referral has to be made to the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), who will investigate the claim.

“If someone calls into the hotline or makes a claim, the DHHR is required to act within 72 hours. A great deal of questions are asked during the claim process, and if they feel it to be a valid complaint, they will send investigators out,” Nines informed.

He said after the investigation is complete, services will be offered to families to help remedy any situation, and resolve the issue, as long as the child isn’t in immediate danger. If the situation is not taken care of, or if investigators find signs of physical or sexual abuse, a petition is filed with the Taylor County Circuit Clerk, and that’s when the prosecutors get involved.

“The prosecuting attorney’s office then becomes council for the DHHR. Children are appointed their own council, called a guardian ad litem, who is not affiliated with the DHHR or prosecutors,” explained Nines. “Parents and guardians are also appointed their own council individually, too. So, these cases tend to be extremely long.”

If it has been determined that the parents or legal guardian are not suitable to care for the child properly, the DHHR will remove the youth from the home. According to Nines, the department will attempt to place the child with family members, first before turning to the foster care system.

Nines shared that the legislature has determined that child abuse and neglect cases take priority over all other cases, except for criminal trials already in progress or domestic violence appeals.

“If I were to have a murder trial scheduled the same day as an abuse case, I would have to postpone my murder trial, because these cases have been deemed a priority,” disclosed Nines. “I just want people to know that the system works, the problem is that there is such a high number of these cases right now. We are doing all we can to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the children of Taylor County.”

If you believe a child is being abused or neglected, please reach out to your local DHHR. Anonymous calls can be made to the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline, by calling 1-800-352-6513.

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