Nearly 1,500 cases of child abuse were reported in Northern Virginia jurisdictions from July 1974 through June 1975 according to a new report on child abuse published by the metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
But neither social nor criminal authorities can be determinehow these reported figures reflect the actual number of child abuse cases. Like many social deviations that can cause embarrassment or other difficulties for the victim and family - including alcoholism, rape and drug addiction - reported cases of child abuse are believed to be much lower than actual incidents.
Testimony during Senate hearings in 1974 on child abuse gave conservative estimates that at least one million abuse incidents were thought to have occurred that year on a nationwide basis, yet only 60,000 cases were reported, said Janice Forney, author of the COG report. The COG report is based on the latest figures available from area jurisdictions last August when Forney began assembling the report.
Forney said,"Abuse is only beginning to be recognized as a national problem, rather than just a few isolated incidents," Forney added, "National studies indicate that abused children show a higher incidence of juvenile delinquency, of becoming involved in violent crimes of becoming abusive parents themselves. Not dealing with the problem now is tantamount to breeding an increase of violence in the future."
Of the 1,499 child abuse cases reported in Northern Virginia, 521 occurred in Prince William County, more than in any other single jurisdiction in the Northern Virginia region. Nearly 500 cases were reported in Fairfax County; figures for other jurisdictions included; 241 in Arlington County, 220 in the City of Alexandria, 39 in Loudoun County and 30 in the City of Fairfax.
"Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell from these figures how many incidents are really occurring in each jurisdiction," Forney said "More cases reported in Prince William may be due to its rural nature, where people know each other better and are more likely to report than neighbors who live next to each other for only a month. Personally, I don't belive there is a significant difference in the number of abuse cases actually occurring in the different jurisdictions."
The northern Virginia abuse figures include what are termed neglect cases, in which direct physical abuse may not have been involved, Forney said. The report does not indicate what deaths resulted from abuse, since such deaths are not always classified under child abuse in Virginia.
"Child abuse can range from the extremes of death, or brain damage caused by blows on the head, to small bruises resulting from a severe spanking," Forney explained. "But most appear to fall in a middle ground, where children display easily apparent bruises and welts from obvious maltreatment."
If the Northern Virginia statistics follow those tallied in the entire state, nearly half the reported cases would involve children six years old or younger, Forney says.
"Even that figue may be low, because these children are less visible to the community and school system than older children. They are less able to bring abuse problems to those who would report it."
Nearly half also would involve the mother inflicting the abuse, while the father would be involved in only 17 per cent of the incidents, the report says.
The number of child abuse incidents reported during fiscal year 197in Northern Virginia total slightly more than one-third of reported cases in nine jurisdictions throughout the metropolitan area, according to the COG study.
The report sayd that 3,270 child abuse cases were reported in the six Northern Virginia jurisdictions, the District of Columbia, Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
"Again, methods of reporting result in a great disparity among the figures," Forney continued. "For example, Virginia includes neglect cases in abuse totals, yet Maryland does not. Maryland and Virginia require teachers, social workers and medical people to report abuse, but the District now requires only medical practitioners to report."
The COG report recommends more detailed methods of reporting abuse in the metropolitan area "in order to get a more clear idea of the extent of the problem," Forney said. The report also calls for programs focusing on prevention of child abuse, increased public awareness of the problem, central registries to compile records that include more than the name of the child and the type of abuse, better treatment programs and deeper research into abuse as a far reaching problem.
"Reporting alone makes a lot of difference," Forney continued. "During 1974 only 426 cases of abuse and neglect were reported in Virginia. The following year, when new child abuse legislation went into effect, the number of reported cases jumped to 21,061."
The Virginia child abuse and neglect legislation, effective June 1, 1975, provides for up to a $500 fine for failure to report abuse incidents by those required to do so, which includes physicians, nurses, teachers and other employees of public and private schools, child care workers, mental health professionals and law enforcement officers.
Northern Virginia residents who suspect a child is being abused o r neglected may call Virginia's toll-tree hotline to the Bureau of Child Protective Services in Richmond (800-5 52-7096).