In just three years cases of child neglect have nearly tripled in Boone County, a statistic that some believe may be related to the county and state’s growing drug abuse epidemic.

Through November 2016, Boone County saw 109 substantiated cases of neglect. That’s up from 96 cases for all of 2015, 52 in 2014 and just 41 in 2013, according to statistics from the Indiana Department of Child Services.

Twice in 2016 neglect cases became fatal. In August, a Thorntown couple were arrested after the death of their 2-month-old son. In October, a Zionsville man was arrested in connection with the death of his 3-month-old son.

An Indiana statute states that neglect occurs when a child is mentally or physically impaired or endangered by a parent’s unwillingness or inability to supply them with basic needs such as food, clothes, medical care, supervision and shelter. Physical abuse differs from neglect in that it occurs when the parent endangers the child by injuring them or letting them be injured.

Kassie Frazier, executive director of Sylvia’s Child Advocacy Center, said that the numbers provided by the Department of Child Services might not show the full picture on abuse and neglect, however.

A “substantiated” case means that the child involved is unsafe in their living situation. An “unsubstantiated” case means that the child was safely out of danger, perhaps because the adult involved was arrested or a relative removed the child out of the neglectful or abusive situation, Frazier said.

“That’s why those numbers look skewed,” she said.

Her organization – which works with victims of sexual abuse – interviewed 204 children in 2016, up from 199 in 2015 and 171 in 2014. Only about three percent of children are found to have fabricated the allegations or ended up recanting them later, she said.

So, though the number of substantiated sexual abuse cases in 2016 – 12, as of Nov. 30 – is lower than the 21 substantiated cases in 2015, those figures only reflect the children whom DCS had to remove from dangerous situations, not those who had already been removed from them through arrests or by other family members.

In Boone County both substantiated and unsubstantiated cases of neglect have risen dramatically in over the last several years. Through November 2016 the county had reported 657 unsubstantiated neglect cases. That’s 40 percent higher than the 466 cases in 2014.

This local trend is reflected throughout the state. In 2014, Indiana had the fifth highest rate in the nation of child abuse and neglect, according to Kids Count, an annual report of child health and well-being.

The number of children in need of services, or CHINS, cases nearly doubled between 2006 and 2015, according to the Associated Press. CHINS cases can involve neglect or abuse.

Local and state officials have pointed to the opioid epidemic as a possible cause of the increase in crimes against children.

“The surge in heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl, parental substance abuse is just really taxing the system,” Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush told the Associated Press.

Boone County Sheriff Mike Nielsen said he is not yet prepared to correlate drug use and child neglect, but that examining statistical relationships will be one of the department’s priorities in the coming years. The Sheriff’s Office plans to hire a crime analyst in 2017 who can look at addiction and how it affects children, he said.

“We’ve got to make sure from an education and prevention standpoint that we’re doing everything we can,” he said. “We also have to look at the fact that neglect might really be related to addiction issues.”

As the county’s crimes against children grow, Sylvia’s Place continues to advocate for children by focusing not just on interviewing children but prevention and treatment for victims.

“We started as just a place from kids to get a forensic interview in a nonthreatening manner,” Frazier said. “Now we’re really focusing on all levels of care.”

The organization visits elementary schools each year as part of its “Body Safety” program and teaches the county’s children how to recognize inappropriate behavior from adults. Soon it will begin to sponsor safe date nights for teenagers and launch a marketing campaign throughout the county geared toward educating adults on prevention and reporting, Frazier said.

Through a partnership the organization also began offering therapy services in its building in 2016 so that children who had reported abuse can receive treatment, Frazier said.

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