April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month in the United States, and, for the past 30 years, the Administration for Children and Families’ Children’s Bureau has gathered and analyzed statistics from each state with the nation for the purpose of analyzing the factors that lead to child maltreatment, neglect or abuse.

For three straight years running from 2017 to 2019 (reports are issued with a two year delay, making 2019’s data the most recent), Kentucky has been listed as the most likely state in the nation for a child to endure abuse or maltreatment, according to the Children’s Bureau’s Child Maltreatment reports from those years, which show Kentucky as having a rate of 20.1 suffering abuse or maltreatment per 1,000 children, more than double the national average.

That data also shows that, of the approximately 656,243 total child abuse cases in the U.S., Kentucky children made up 20,130 of those cases.

Linda Duncan, who works as a victim advocate at the Commonwealth Attorney’s office in Johnson County, said that many factors in Kentucky might lead to the prevalence of child abuse.

“I was a social worker for almost 30 years, and I’ve been retired from that for about 13 years,” Duncan said, explaining her intimacy with the issue. “What you’ve got, and I’ve seen this over the years, is, of course, drugs are a big issue, substance abuse.”

Duncan said she has worked many counties throughout the years, and she has noticed that the drug epidemic that has ravaged Eastern Kentucky has led to more children being placed into care as even the grandparents which have typically stepped up to take care of children who would’ve been traditionally placed into foster care are affected by substance abuse disorders.

“Of course the drugs are a problem, poverty, that’s always a big issue -- those are the two main ones that I see. I’ve seen it change over the years, the stronger family ties (have broken down), unemployment,” Duncan explained. “What happens when you’ve got somebody with a substance misuse issue is that their primary relationship is with the drugs, not their child and not their husband or wife. That’s their primary.

“We used to say it would take about two years to get somebody back on track with their children because you have to address the substance abuse and then you have to work on the underlying issues,” Duncan continued, explaining that it was a complex issue to address and took time to correct.

Duncan said poverty led to overwhelmed and stressed parents or caretakers who might not react rationally to otherwise normal child behavior.

“Poverty just leads to people struggling, being overwhelmed. I think, sometimes, it’s not that people necessarily give up, but they’re just overwhelmed,” Duncan said, stating that even having enough food was a struggle for a huge number of families in our county or region. “There’s two food pantries here in Paintsville, but we were doing several hundred families a month, because they might have food stamps or some kind of an income but they were still struggling, so you have to try and supplement.”

Poverty and drug addiction often come hand in hand, Duncan said, and both heighten the risk to children, especially in tandem with one another.

“Meth labs were just kind of starting when I was getting ready to retire, so you had kids in the middle of that, they were exposed to fumes and stuff, and some of them had actually ingested meth ... you had people who were severely neglectful and kids were at risk for sexual abuse because there is a hyper-sexuality with meth,” Duncan said. “Of course, they’ve changed their manufacturing methods not, but you’ve still got risk to kids.”

The solution is as multi-faceted as the problem, Duncan said, which is the reason for the existence of a multi-disciplinary committee involving law enforcement, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, prosecutors, community outreach programs and more.

Duncan herself is a member of the only rural special victims prosecutorial unit in the state and has seen great success alongside Assistant Commonwealth Attorney, David Blankenship, as the pair received recognition for their work towards prosecuting sexual abuse cases specifically. In 2019, Duncan won an award for Outstanding Victim Advocate and Blankenship was awarded as an Outstanding Assistant Commonwealth Attorney for their work in this unit.

Johnson Commonwealth’s Attorney Tony Skeans said he has seen a substantial increase in convictions in these types of cases due to Duncan and Blankenship’s work.

“What I have seen, based upon their work, is I have seen a substantial increase in actual cases being indicted and convicted, because normally, and this is purely anecdotal, for every 100 reports, you’d end up with a handful of indictments and maybe one conviction out of 100 reports,” Skeans said. “We’ve seen a jump, we’ve doubled the number of cases we’ve been able to indict and they’ve all resulted in convictions to this point. I think that’s something that needs to be spoken of openly. It’s a significant thing that, because of our team of expert prosecutors and victim advocates, that we’ve been able to do that. It is bad, but you have the best people in Kentucky working here in this circuit and they’re having an effect. Those are important points.”

As far as combating the issue goes, the average citizen can have a substantial impact as well, Duncan said, by networking and reaching out to their neighbors and family members they see who might be struggling with the aforementioned stressors.

“It actually is a community issue, if you’re going to protect your children, you have to have that network to help,” Duncan said. “If you’re talking about prevention, sometimes it’s just in the networking and putting people in touch with the therapists, sometimes it’s just an issue, like I said, of people being overwhelmed -- sometimes, just having somebody there to listen or somebody who knows the resources, where do they get food, where do they get this or that. That’s what people can step up and do, is, if they see people struggling, to give a helping hand on this stuff.”

This advice is especially important now, as experts warn that the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to more abuse -- due to these same stressors being exacerbated by the lockdowns and job loss resulting from the pandemic -- and the emotional hardship brought on by financial shortcomings and the lack of structure or support brought on by the extended periods of isolation. These stressors can lead to potentially dangerous situations, according to a statement from Norton Children’s Hospital.

“Research has found that when families are stressed, children are at an increased risk of being abused,” said Kelly L. Dauk, M.D., chair, Norton Children’s Hospital Child Abuse Task Force and pediatrician with Norton Children’s Inpatient Care, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine. “Caregivers must take care of themselves physically and emotionally, and ask for help if they are struggling. Maintaining connections with friends, family and others in the community is important. It takes support from the whole community to stop child abuse. We all have a responsibility help those who are struggling and report concerns for child safety and well-being.”

If you suspect abuse or maltreatment of a child within the state of Kentucky, the number to call to report suspected child abuse is (877) KY-SAFE1 (597-2331). The National Child Abuse Hotline, (800) 4-A-CHILD (422-4453), is an additional support option, offering professional crisis counselors who can provide intervention, information and referrals to emergency, social service and support resources.

All calls are confidential and not only is reporting child abuse the right thing to do, in Kentucky, it is mandated by law.