Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a 3-part series looking at child abuse and neglect in Lee County
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – The efforts of area child advocacy groups to curb the occurrence of maltreatment in Lee County are multi-faceted, but the main thrust of intervention is a dual generation approach.
Arin Jones works with the Iowa Department of Human Services as part of the agencies Community Partnerships for Protecting Children. She’s also the Vice President of the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Lee County.
Jones serves as a liaison from the DHS to a four-county categorization area that includes Henry, Des Moines, Louisa, and Lee counties. Her role is to serve as a bridge between the child abuse advocacy groups locally and the state agency.
She came on with the Lee County group in 2014.
“They were dwindling and faltering when I came in in 2014. But they started working together later that year and now that group has close to 40 volunteers including professionals and people working in different service fields,” Jones said.
“They’re always looking for people from different sectors to step in and increase the impact of the group. It’s helpful to have professionals. You don’t have to have any sort of expertise or training. We’re just better with more people involved.”
Breanna Kramer-Riesberg, the Lee County Health Department’s 1st Five Developmental Support Specialist and Community Outreach and Development Project Coordinator, said child maltreatment is generational.
Jones agreed and add typically underfunded.
“Our ultimate goal being child abuse prevention or re-abuse prevention, is generally very underfunded. But we don’t focus on that,” Jones said. “We have to be doing triage and treating issues at hand. But to improve we have to be taking steps. This is generational and cyclical and interconnected.”
Poverty is a large indicator of abuse and neglect, and Lee County has traditionally had one of the state’s higher poverty rates. That correlates with the state’s current ranking at the bottom of the state when it comes to neglect. Lee County is 99th out of 99 counties in Iowa in reported neglect. It’s 79th in the state in reported abuse claims.
Jones said parents are more likely to abuse when they are under stress.
“It’s interconnected with denial of critical care, which we call ‘neglect’. Substance abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence all play a part and Lee County rates high across the board on those,” Jones said. “One leads to the other, which makes the other more likely, and the other more likely, and so on. That’s a cycle that’s tough to break.”
She said children in those environments obviously learn from what they see, and then become the next generation of parents and that’s another cycle that needs intervention for maltreatment numbers to start to subside.
“We focus on progress. We are a small group of volunteers mostly and the issue is cultural change and the change of larger systems, but we really have relatively tiny resources,” she said.
Lee County received a Resilient Community grant for Empowering Families from the DHS because of the high rates of maltreatment, but also because of the support systems that are already in place, like 1st Five, to help make the best use of the infusion of funds.
The grant was a $76,000 annual grant for two years with an option of renewal for an additional three years. Kramer-Riesberg’s salary is paid with part of the grant.
Kramer-Riesberg contracted with Iowa State University Extension office to help process data and execute a strategic plan. That work is being overseen by Shelley Oltmans, a community development specialist with the extension office.
Another part of the equation is the county’s Bridges Out of Poverty. The bridges program overseen by a board of directors under the direction of Shayla Blackburn also targets generational poverty and breaking the familial cycles that lead to substance abuse, unemployability, child maltreatment, while resetting soft skills and behaviors.
As part of the grant project, Kramer-Riesberg is spearheading an Empowerment Group that has been conducting parental surveys in the county over the past six months. That group will be compiling a strategic plan starting in July that will look at what changes need to happen within the advocacy groups, support groups, and programming to start chipping away at the generational cycles.
Ginger Knisely, the president of the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Lee County said she hopes the grant helps bring things together in the county.
“I am hopeful that the Empowering Families grant will go a long ways toward coordination of all of the things we have always known and tried to address individually.”
The CAPC is a community-based, volunteer organization that is open to new members..
The turnaround starts with looking at systems and policies, Jones said.
“It starts with looking at is there an organization or organizations we can work with to help generate positive outcomes. Larger things are what make great change,” she said.
“We also know in this field you have to have a dual generation approach. We can work with kids at schools and provide support, but the thing is they go home to families and if that space is broken it’s not nearly as effective as if we can work with both generations.”
She also said it’s not an issue of looking at the counties that are doing well in the rankings and taking best practices.
“Honestly we’ve never looked at each county from the top level and seeing what they do differently,” Jones said. “It matches up to economic factors, substance abuse, mental health, and community culture is a big piece. The county makeup is usually different. But the dual generation approach is proven.
Jones said the quickest way to start making an impact is for parents to not be afraid to reach out and ask for help. The county and state have a lot of resources, but there is large gap in knowing what is there and wanting to get help.
“Everyone has experiences they want to work out. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask. In Lee County one of the largest groups is the public health department. The parenting programs run out that department, but they are interconnected with other interagency groups like Community Action of Southeast Iowa,” she said.
“For even greater change, the community in general needs to be more aware, to buy in and have ownership in the next generation of children and next generation of Lee County citizens. You will benefit. That ‘it-takes-a-village’ thing is totally true.”
The following link contains community resources in Lee County for parents relating to assistance in making sure children are safe, healthy, and fed: http://leecountyhd.org/index.php/comm/1st-five-healthy-mental/resources/