Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series looking at the state of child maltreatment in Lee County. Look for the 2nd and 3rd parts Thursday and Friday.
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – According to data from state and federal child welfare officials, Lee County ranks last out of 99 counties in Iowa when it comes to child neglect, and in the bottom 20 counties for child abuse.
According to a Lee County Resilient Communities Needs Assessment that pulled data from the 2019 Iowa Child Maltreatment Prevention Needs Assessment, Lee County ranks 99th out of 99 counties. The same maltreatment survey showed Lee County 79th out of 99 counties for child abuse.
The Resilient Communities assessment was funded in part through a state grant that also provides for a five-year salary for Breanna Kramer-Riesberg, through the Lee County Health Department.
The grant was awarded in July of 2020 and Kramer-Riesberg was brought on board in August of that year. Then LCHD subcontracted with Shelley Oltmans, a community development specialist with ISU Extension. Oltmans is also the executive director of the Keokuk Area Chamber of Commerce. The grant is guaranteed for two years at $76,000 per year and is renewable for an additional three years.
Kramer-Riesberg said the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Lee County has been in place for several decades, but correcting generational child maltreatment is a process that requires diligence and patience.
“I wouldn’t say the programming has been ineffective by no means. This is a really hard issue to impact,” she said.
“There’s a lot of stigma associated with substance abuse, poverty, and the risk factors involved – there’s even a lot of stigma and embarrassment involved in asking for help. I think every parent feels like they could be better for their kids – so how can we support them in doing that.”
Neglect is defined by welfare officials as lack of action by a care provider. Abuse is an act by the parent or caregiver, Kramer-Riesberg said that’s an important distinction to make at the outset.
“Maltreatment includes both. We’re talking about meeting a child’s basic needs. Historically this has been a concern for Lee County,” she said.
“But it’s a process and it’s certainly not going to happen overnight. There’s no magical solution to this.”
According to a 2020 report from the Iowa Department of Human Services, Lee County had 259 cases of reported neglect, 148 instances of a child having a dangerous substance (92nd of 99 counties), 19 cases of physical abuse, 44 cases where there was presence of illegal drugs in the child’s system, 18 reported cases of sexual abuse, 3 instances where a registered sex offender had access to a child, and one instance of child trafficking – for a total of 492 reported incidents.
She said the issue has to be taken in by the community, in this case Lee County, and there has to be coordinated efforts in many different areas with different services and support to meet it head on.
“We have to break this really strong chain and cycle and it’s hard to do,” Kramer-Riesberg said. “The good thing is we have had fantastic community members that have been pushing this for years. They are passionate about it and continue to do prevention work even if the impact isn’t noticeable in the numbers.”
One of the biggest hurdles Kramer-Riesberg has discovered in the first year of the grant program is that parents are apprehensive about asking for help. She said at some level everyone can use support.
“Every parent needs help. Whether it’s from friends or family, or the food pantry. And just because you ask for help doesn’t mean you aren’t trying,” she said.
“Sometimes it means you have tried everything you know and it hasn’t worked. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and to ask for help. Your kids will pick up on your efforts to learn and grow, and they will do the same. They will be less fearful in asking you or teachers for help – it’s a ripple effect.”
As part of the grant program, community input is large part of the process and Kramer-Riesberg said she is looking for any and all ideas from county residents.
“How can we improve community support for one another? What do people need help with? How can agencies make it easier for people to ask for help? How can we increase awareness of the resources available in Lee County?,” she said.
“I highly encourage any one who wants to learn more about what we are doing, or has input to share to call LCHD at 319-372-5225 and ask for, or email me.”
Her email is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A county survey conducted this year generated approximately 300 responses. Kramer-Riesberg said those were predominantly completed by white females so it’s a small subgroup of the demographic. But she said it did provide important input for the strategic plan phase.
About 50% of the respondents said they had or may have experience financial insecurity in the past year. 75% said they had or maybe had experienced mental health issues such as stress or depression.
Next month, an Empower Families Workgroup will be starting a strategic planning process based on data from the survey and other reports that has been synthesized by Oltmans.
Part of that process will be highlighting some of the strengths that Lee County has including a wide array of programs and effort related to the identified concerns of child maltreatment and protective factors.
Participants in a surveys already conducted in the county said there is a need to build on the strength of existing child maltreatment prevention efforts and programs, such as LCHD’s 1st Five Healthy Mental Development Initiative.
The program is a collaborative effort to help new parents navigate their child’s mental well-being for the first five years. More information on that program and the more than 14 countywide resources for parents and children, click here: http://leecountyhd.org/index.php/comm/1st-five-healthy-mental/resources/
Kramer-Riesberg said she is hopeful that the numbers can undergo a correction, but it will take a coordinated and collaborative effort to gain ground.
“I am optimistic that we won’t always see these numbers. It does come back to several factors. The generational poverty, mental health, access to health care , cultural factors, and limited economic growth opportunities,” she said.
“It’s not just one factor that leads to abuse and neglect, it’s a lot of factors working together. I hesitate to say we would see these numbers forever.”