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Calls to child abuse hotline soar

Officials cite publicity about a missing Miami child and the close of the school year as two possible reasons.

By JIM ROSS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 7, 2002


INVERNESS -- Reports of child abuse, neglect and abandonment in Citrus County spiked during the spring, and the Department of Children and Families thinks it knows why.

In April, the department received 166 reports. That's 25 percent more than it took in during April 2001 and a 110 percent jump over April 2000 figures, according to state records.

The number of reports for May 2002 (167) and May 2001 (166) were almost identical. In May 2000, the department received 120 reports, the records showed.

The first reason for the rise in reports, according to outgoing DCF regional chief Patrick Howard, is publicity about Rilya Wilson.

Rilya is the 5-year-old Miami girl who disappeared from state care 15 months before she was reported missing.

Howard, who last week announced plans to become Marion County administrator, said news coverage of the case heightened people's senses and might have prompted them to call the department's toll-free hotline to report suspicious activity in their families or neighborhoods.

The department has seen this phenomenon in the past.

"Hotline calls have been going up since Kayla McKean and the Kayla McKean law," Howard said, making reference to the Lake County girl killed by her father in 1998 and the resulting legislation that attempted to close gaps in the child protection system.

The second reason for the spike in reports, Howard said, is that teachers and other school workers typically will call in more reports as the school year draws to a close. The theory is that they suspect some students might be victims of abuse or neglect and, since they won't be seeing the children regularly, want the state to check out the home environment.

"My folks tell me that's fairly usual," Howard said.

The department's Citrus statistics also are affected by complaints received from clients at Brown Schools, the residential treatment center for emotionally troubled adolescents; and inmates at Cypress Creek Academy, the state lockup for serious juvenile offenders.

The department must investigate all complaints, so the increasing number of reports is taking a toll on investigators.

During April, Citrus investigators had an average of 52 open investigations, DCF records showed. The number was 57 during May.

That's slightly better than 59, which is the average for investigators throughout District 13, which includes Citrus, Hernando, Marion, Lake and Sumter counties. But Citrus' numbers lag behind the state average, which is 44.

Lack of state money isn't necessarily the culprit. Howard said the Legislature in 2000 gave District 13 money for 43 investigators; two years later, there was enough for 77 investigators.

The trouble, he said, is that the allocations invariably are based on a district's past performance. By the time the new workers are hired, trained and ready to investigate, the district population has increased and other factors have contributed to an increase in abuse reports.

"You're always behind the curve," Howard said.

He also said the Legislature, when deciding how many investigators to assign a district, must consider that investigators should regularly take time away from their duties to pursue advanced education.

"We ought to add in time for regular training sessions," Howard said.

He said the Citrus staff is experienced, solid and will be able to handle the increased workload.

"I think Citrus County is one of the best counties we've got," Howard said.

-- Jim Ross writes about social services in Citrus County. Reach him at 860-7302 or

jross@sptimes.com.

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