A county-wide initiative to help drug endangered children is working in Walworth County, officials said.
ELKHORN—Since January, the Walworth County Child Advocacy Center has seen double the number of drug-endangered children than in all of 2015, manager Paula Hocking said.
The reasons are more drugs in the community and more awareness of the effects drugs in the home can have on children, Hocking said.
“I think what credits us in Walworth County is we’re not afraid to talk about it, and we’re not afraid to let everybody know the concerns,” Hocking said. “I think that is part of the prevention. If you can’t talk about it, you’re never going to be able to prevent it.
“I think everybody is on high alert.”
A county-wide initiative to protect kids from the drug habits of adults in their lives is leading to more arrests for crimes against children and resulting in better care for those children, according to a group of Walworth County officials targeting the problem.
Law enforcement, prosecutors, health and child advocacy agencies and school officials have agreed to follow a protocol for reporting and investigating sensitive crimes.
Children are considered drug endangered if they are put into harm’s way because of drug activity in their homes, said Dr. Lynn Sheets, a Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin child abuse pediatrician who works out of the Walworth County Child Advocacy Center once a week providing medical care.
Hocking said children have told her stories of:
— Not being able to wake up their moms for days.
— Older siblings being in charge of feeding and watching the younger brothers and sisters while parents use or deal drugs.
— Children answering the door and letting people into the home knowing the visitors were there to buy drugs.
The child advocacy center has a case every week related to children being in homes where drugs are affecting their lives, Hocking said.
Last month, the center had between eight to 10 children officials believed lived in homes where drugs were a threat.
Over the last two years, members of the group trying to help such children have hosted training, such as teaching law enforcement what to look for when they execute search warrants, District Attorney Dan Necci said.
Instead of focusing only on finding drugs and related paraphernalia, officers are now also measuring the height of shelves and tables, noting where needles with heroin are found and jotting down the height of children who live in the home, Necci said.
“These are all things that allow us to go beyond neglect and charge reckless endangerment in the second degree,” Necci said. “The noting of that and the collection of evidence has allowed more charges.”
“We’ve been able to assist and train law enforcement and work together with law enforcement where we create these scenarios where we hold folks accountable for drug crimes but also crimes against their children,” Necci said.
Sheriff Kurt Picknell said the training and teamwork are crucial for the multi-disciplinary team to work effectively.
“We’re very proud of this area, but it’s connected to much bigger metropolitan areas, and these addictions can occur very quickly, and this multi-disciplinary approach addresses the concerns that come to us … It as an effective way to service the community,” Picknell said.
The team provides medical services, assigns advocates, places children into appropriate care and conducts forensic interviews with the children to help with prosecution, Hocking said.
“What I see is a more team approached. … Everybody is working together to get the best results,” Hocking said.
Sheets said Walworth County is ahead of most places in bringing awareness to and addressing the needs of children in drug houses. She said the change is from people learning together, developing relationships and using science.
“I would say that Walworth County is extremely progressive compared to many counties,” Sheets said. “We all have a little piece of the puzzle, and if we aren’t talking to each other, then there is the risk of people really focusing on just their piece of the puzzle, and what Walworth County has done is working together and educating each other.”
There are numerous short- and long-term effects on children raised in environments where drugs are present, Sheets said.
Children run the risk of ingesting the drugs or coming into contact with chemicals used to manufacture them. Sheets has seen this lead to children going to school impaired or suffering organ damage.
Drug-endangered children also have a higher risk of being physically or sexually abused because people who are going in and out of their homes may abuse them, and some children have even been sold for sexual favors, Sheets said.
“It is very harmful to the developing brain of a child, so these kids are all at risk of adverse childhood experiences,” Sheets said. “…We know children exposed to these types of events may have up to a 20-year shortened lifespan because of health risks.”