MONTROSE – Statistically, rates for child abuse are not up for this area or the country, but as awareness has raised and reporting increased, nonprofit agencies that deal with abused and neglected children, like Dolphin House in Montrose, are inundated.
Dolphin House executive director Sue Montgomery, said the numbers are staggering for her agency, and have doubled over last year.
When Dolphin House opened in 2005, it saw 35 children, but that number has reached 159 this year, just through September. The problem is that state grant funding is being based on 88 children, the number who came through in 2008. Last year those numbers swelled to 156.
Dolphin House is not a shelter, Montgomery is quick to explain, and most children only spend an hour or two in the cozy, two-story house on South First Street.
Dolphin House offers a service that no other agency does. It is the first place that law enforcement or county social services caseworkers bring a child who has been abused, usually sexually, to interview and examine the child in a gentle way but at the same time get evidence for the case against the perpetrator.
The multi-disciplinary team approach that Dolphin House uses results 60 percent of cases are deemed prosecutable, as opposed to just 20 percent when the child is interviewed by individual agencies.
If Dolphin House did not exist, abused children would have to tell their stories over and over again and go from agency to agency. Instead, at the house where they’re met with homemade chocolate chip cookies and tons of stuffed animals, they are interviewed only one time by a trained Dolphin House child forensic interviewer while law enforcement, social services and other agencies watch in a screening room on a live TV feed. Tapes are also made of the interview for appropriate authorities, like the District Attorney’s office.
Almost all of the children who are brought to Dolphin House have been sexually abused, which makes interviewing them even more difficult, Montgomery said.
But like other nonprofits, Dolphin House has fallen on hard financial times and is seeking more people to become members of Friends of Dolphin House. The cost of running Dolphin House comes to about $300 per child, and members donate $25 per month for one year.
“We will never turn a child away, and we may start closing the house on Mondays to save money,” she said. “But we are always available 24/7, and last year we did four interviews on New Year’s Day.”
Montgomery gets paid for 24 hours a week, but works about 80, she said, and wishes she could work for nothing.
But money is tight, and as a last resort the Dolphin House board may even consider taking out a mortgage on the historic house, which was built in 1910 and donated to the agency. Montgomery is also working with other child help agencies and the Montrose school district to hold a Walk For Kids benefit next spring.
Even though more child abuse cases are being reported, Montgomery said she believes it’s because of raised awareness and a closer association with social service agencies that leads to more referrals.
Montgomery is glad for the increase, but hopes more people will become aware of the potential for child sexual abuse in their communities.
“We don’t have enough money to educate communities and I think the community needs to know we have a problem and that it happens in every community,” she said. “I’m thankful there’s more reporting than in the past, but I don’t think there’s more abuse.”
But the face of abuse is changing, she said, and the median age of perpetrators is 18 and usually known to the victim.
“We’ve seen sexual abuse acted out by children as early as 8 years old, but we treat them as a victim,” she said. “A child does not know those things without being taught.”
Montgomery said she’s interviewed 11 children from ages 8 to 13 who were sexual predators, and 10 of them had been abused themselves. Younger perpetrators are removed from the home are sent to a facility of Gateway Youth and Family Services in Delta, she said, where they get the mental health counseling they need.
“They try to help them get what they need so they can overcome the need to act out on other children,” she said.
Of the 159 children seen through September of this year, 157 were victims of sexual abuse, Montgomery said, and “100 percent of the time they were abused by a family member or a person in a position of trust, a babysitter, at church, or a good friend of the family.”
At Dolphin House, in addition to being interviewed, children who have been harmed recently are given a physical exam by a medical team led by Dr. Mary Vader, Montgomery said.
The team approach to everything is what makes Dolphin House work, she said, and all agencies work together to lessen the trauma to the child.
Not all children require a physical exam, like three children from the same family who came in recently. All three had suppressed their abuse from four years ago, as children are able to do, but without therapy something will “trigger” those memories and cause future problems, Montgomery said.
In the case of the three kids, the older boy, in middle school had a “trigger event” that brought it all back, which she said is normal.
“The child will always have triggers – all their life – if they do have therapy they can learn to control those triggers and control those emotions,” she said.
All the cases are difficult, but Montgomery, who took over as executive director from founder Kay Alexander, said she’s seen things here she’d never seen before.
“I feel like I’ve seen everything,” she said. I’ve worked with children all my life and have seen things here I never saw in St. Louis.”
Peg Mewes, director of Health and Human Services for Montrose County, said reports of child abuse have not gone up, and she agrees that the increase at Dolphin House is because more cases are being reported.
But more is needed to prevent child abuse in the first place, Mewes said, and she and her staff are working on programs to help families before they get into a crisis situation.
“There is so much we can do to make things better – what to look for, what to avoid, what to report,” she said.
Mewes recommends that people go to the website www.childwelfare.gov for tips on recognizing abuse, types of abuse, signs of physical abuse and neglect and more.
Mewes says she’s heard people say that child abuse gets worse during bad financial times, but she doesn’t have the numbers to bear that out.
“Our numbers from last year are fairly flat, but I will say the cases we are intervening in are more severe than in the past, with both sexual and physical abuse,” she said. “But we are really trying to help these families with some real crisis interventions so we can avoid child welfare placements.”
For a Children's Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services list, “Recognizing Child Abuse,” please visit www.watchnewspapers.com and search the phrase “child abuse dolphin house” or visit www.childwelfare.gov.
The Stone House Restaurant is hosting a wine-pairing event with a silent auction to benefit Dolphin House on Wednesday, Nov. 3. Tickets to the event have sold out, but auction items, such as ski passes or wine baskets, are still needed. For more information, call Montgomery at 240-8655 or log onto www.dolphinhousecolorado.com.