Abuse in Utah: It’s More Common Than We Think

Story by: Kalyn Dewey

Seven children died in Utah last year due to abuse in the home. Every eight minutes, a call is made to the Division of Child and Family Services. Each call is a report of neglect or abuse in the state of Utah. The Division of Child and Family Services is one of the only organizations that works with many different abusive problems.

The Division of Child and Family Services has both a vision and a mission according to its website. Its vision is to keep children safe and strengthen families. Its mission is “to keep children safe from abuse and neglect and provide domestic violence services by working with communities and strengthening families.”

Abuse is an issue throughout Utah. It is more than just physical harming of a child; it also includes emotional and mental abuse. According to Healthy Place, they define emotional abuse as consisting of someone intimidating, isolating, verbal assault or anything that hurts a child’s dignity, self-worth or identity. Psychology Today defines mental abuse as doing something in which the person would be subject to obtaining depression, anxiety or any such mental issue as one puts blame on the victim.

Last year, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) reported 9,993 children who had been abused. That equals to 27 children every single day. 27 children is equivalent to an entire elementary classroom that is abused every single day. In fact, 65 percent of the reported abuse were with children under the age of ten.

Tess Hortin, a former DCFS employee, started as a Child Protective Services Investigator. That means that she handled up-front assessments of child abuse and neglect that were reported by the community. She later became a Human Services Supervisor. After that, she supervised a team of Child Protection workers and In-Home Service Workers who worked longer term with families, which were usually under court order, to maintain the family unit. Hortin was also on the Utah County Sex Crimes Task Force and the Statewide Child Protection Services Steering Committee which created and reviewed policy and procedure.

When asked about Utah, Hortin exclaimed that Utah was just as bad and sometimes worse than other states. She stated that many new cases poured in daily. These cases related to meth, depression and internet addiction. As meth is a big issue in Utah, many of the cases were meth users. Internet addiction, meth abuse, and depression all led to severe neglect with children. On top of that, sexual abuse, domestic violence and physical abuse are major issues as well, but not as specific to Utah.

Hortin went further to describe what it was like working with children and families who were abused. “I was chased down the street and through houses.  I went to multiple middle of the night drug busts to remove children.  I was threatened and cursed at.” She continued on, “I’ve had things thrown at me.  It was an incredibly hard job where you were constantly told by the public that you were doing too much or not doing enough.  Not many people love DCFS workers.”

As DCFS is the only organization which deals with abuse in Utah, there are many people who dislike what they do. Being a DCFS worker is something that experiences the best and worst of times. These children lived in incredibly terrible environments too. Hortin talked about how heartbreaking it was to go into the houses and see the children. She went on to talk about more of her experiences as a DCFS worker. She’s walked right into a trailer where the husband was beating the wife and had to de-escalate things fast.  She’s seen a deceased 10-year-old.  She’s seen things that were extremely stressful and intense.

These children live in terrible situations, but not all are poor. Hortin wanted to make sure that people understood that abuse is not subject to the lower class and poor families. Abuse knows no boundaries. It could happen to anyone, whether they be rich or poor.

The DCFS offers multiple programs and services to help with these families. Not only do they intervene in abusive homes, but they provide parent education, budgeting help, crisis intervention, sex abuse treatment and mental health therapy.

In addition to these treatments, they offer in-home services to protect families. The DCFS puts the child into a relatives’ care or up for adoption only when absolutely necessary. They feel very strong about not disrupting children’s lives and those they have attachments to. In order to keep the child safe, there are three in-home services.

To begin, there is a voluntary service in which the parents choose to go to counseling. When approved, the parents and children join in going to counseling. If the situation is a little direr, they have court-ordered services which provide supervision from someone who works with the division. If the abuse and neglect are not manageable in the home, they offer intensive services that include teaching parenting skills, developing child safety plans, teaching conflict resolution and problem-solving skills and linking the family to broad-based community resources.

Hortin recalled her first day as a 21-year-old on the job. “There was standing sewage, a hole where a toilet should have been.  Cockroaches and mice scampered around.  The stench of urine and filth was strong,” she said. “Six children needed to be rounded up and put in cars.  Law enforcement met us at the home.  A young boy tried to hit me with a stretch of rubber hose to keep me away.  After we finished, I went home and showered and cried. Some days were like that.”

These people are all around us. They are our neighbors and friends. They are our coworkers and loved ones. Abuse isn’t lessened by the idea of ‘happy valley’ Utah. In fact, according to a KUTV report, Utah ranks eighth in child abuse and first in sex abuse rates of children. We need to step up and see the issue.

If you know of abuse or are involved in abuse, go get help by going to http://dcfs.utah.gov.