Advocacy: Protecting children from abuse is vital

Most West Virginians would do just about anything to prevent a child being harmed, yet child abuse may be increasing in our state.

During the 2017 fiscal year, which ended June 30, the state’s 21 advocacy centers for children provided services to 3,914 youngsters, according to a published report. That was an increase of more than 400 from the preceding 12-month period.

And the actual number of child abuse victims undoubtedly is much higher than the figure reported. The 21 centers cover just 40 of our 55 counties. And a substantial number of abuse situations are never brought to the attention of people who may be able to help.

One reason for that is that the abusers often are parents. Forty percent of the 3,914 cases reported involved biological fathers and sometimes, mothers. Nearly ALL of the abuse reported was committed by someone the child knew.

Child advocates are not certain whether the higher numbers reflect more abuse, or more children coming forward to report it.

Discussing abuse with a child can be a challenge, but it is a conversation parents, guardians or other adults close to those children must have. No child should have to suffer silently.

We know some abuse stems from the drug epidemic in West Virginia. We also know that among the most distressing aspects of the problem is that those guilty of harming children often escape punishment — and sometimes retain custody of their victims.

Of the 3,914 victims cited in a recent report, criminal charges were filed in only 548 cases. Convictions were obtained in just 242 situations.

It can be exceedingly difficult to even obtain enough evidence to charge a child abuser, much less to convict him or her. Still, we have to do better.

If that requires devoting more resources to the problem, so be it. Our children deserve the best we can do to keep them safe.