URBANA - At least twice a week, pediatrician Kathleen Buetow estimates, a child walks into her office who's seen - or experienced - violence at home.
She can't always prove it. But she knows the signs.
Children who are withdrawn, unhappy, fearful, suspicious. Parents who don't offer warmth and support to their children. Parents who speak cruelly to their kids in front of her, even taunting them with physical harm.
"They threaten, 'If you're not good, I'm going to have that doctor give you a shot.' Or if you have to give a child an immunization, the parent says, 'Ha ha ha, you're gonna hurt,'" Buetow said.
Buetow acknowledges her patients may not be typical, as she gets many referrals from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
But the numbers concern her nonetheless. Besides being potential abuse victims themselves, children from violent homes are often emotionally disturbed and don't fare as well as other students in school, studies show.
"They had more suspensions from school. They missed more time from school. ... They had more emotional problems than children not in homes with domestic violence," Buetow said, citing a recent study of 153 children by the University of Washington.
"If you think there's a big fight going on at home, or if you have spent the night trying to sleep through a big fight, you're just not as able to do as well in school," she said.
A group that tracks the welfare of children in Champaign County wants to highlight the issue of domestic violence and its impact on children.
Project 18 today was to release its Community Report Card for 2002, which looks at factors that affect the well-being of children in the county, including several measures of family violence.
Figures show that child abuse cases themselves are on the decline, following statewide trends, thanks to new education and prevention services, officials said. The number has dropped from 387 in 2000 to 351 in 2002.
But the number of domestic violence calls to police has "flatlined" or edged slowly upward since 1998, from 3,244 to 3,501 in 2001, said Mark Driscoll, planning analyst at the Champaign County Mental Health Board, which compiles the report.
The trend is more alarming coupled with a decline in the number of orders of protection filed by abuse victims to prevent any contact by their abuser. It's been dropping since 1995 and, at 560, is back down to 1990 levels. One reason may be the loss of a federal funding for a domestic violence unit at the Champaign County state's attorney's office, which included a victim's advocate to help women file orders of protection, said Bill Conlin, program analyst at the mental health board.
Those duties are now handled by advocates at A Woman's Place, a shelter for domestic violence victims. But it, too, has undergone severe state budget cuts, Driscoll said. Meanwhile, the number of clients at A Woman's Place and the Center for Women in Transition rose from 706 in 2000 to 896 in 2001, he noted.
"We're meeting the demand, but there are definitely fewer resources now," said Rosalie Rippey at A Woman's Place.
Michael Trout, head of the Infant-Parent Institute in Champaign, said research shows exposure to domestic violence can have "profound" effects on a child's development, even as an infant or toddler.
A child's experience in the first year of life is almost entirely shaped by the mother, he said. A baby will pick up on his mother's fear response if she's being hit or if he hears fighting.
"Her body changes so dramatically that the baby begins to experience his own fear responses," Trout said. "Like every other animal on the planet, the baby begins to put together some sort of reaction inside," such as tensing to get muscles ready for fleeing or fighting, or withdrawal, which Trout calls the "hide in the cave" response.
He may have the same fear response later, even when there's no danger, if he hears a sound he associates with his parents fighting, Trout said. He may withdraw or become suddenly quiet, and no one knows why. Or he may bully somebody, or become extremely tense and not be able to focus.
The situation is particularly hard on children removed from their homes and placed with foster parents, Buetow said.
"They're losing their bond with their mother, because she can't protect them or she refuses to protect them because she's protecting the abuser," Buetow said. "Foster parents may be loving, but if you were a 1-year-old and somebody snatched you from your home and gave you to somebody you've never seen before, you can imagine how wrenching that is."
Doug McMeyer, a domestic violence community educator for A Woman's Fund, knows firsthand the impact of family violence on children.
One of his earliest childhood memories is sitting at the top of the stairs with his older sister, listening to his parents argue downstairs. The screaming and yelling, and sometimes the crash of broken objects, would drift up from the kitchen or basement. "It's hard to describe unless you've actually heard it. It's a horrible noise," said McMeyer, 25.
Most of the abuse was verbal, with physical violence reserved for objects or pets. But then one day McMeyer came home to find his father attacking his older sister.
"He was actually strangling her in the bathtub when I called the police and had him arrested. My mom bailed him out the next morning," McMeyer recalled.
A few years later, when McMeyer was a high school freshman, his father came after him. They'd been arguing in the kitchen because McMeyer was on the phone at 8 p.m. when his father thought he should be studying. The fight escalated, and his father punched him in the jaw, leaving it bleeding and swollen.
"I took him to the ground and put him in a headlock and asked him to think about what he was doing. I went upstairs and got my coat and left the house."
After years of blaming herself or insisting that their father could change, McMeyer's mother finally left after that fight.
McMeyer said the abuse has affected him "every day." As a boy, he often picked on kids who were younger or weaker. Though fairly intelligent, he got mediocre grades in school. But he was involved in many activities, "probably because I didn't want to go home," he said. "It wasn't someplace I enjoyed being. I spent a lot of time hanging out in the woods."
Today, McMeyer is still trying to work through the baggage, in his relationship with his wife, his own tendency toward anger and the prospect of being a father himself. He cut off ties with his father for a while, but lately has resumed contact.
"When he wasn't being abusive, he was a good guy. He's taught me a lot of good things. But at the same time, he's taught me a lot of things that every day I have to work hard not to repeat."
Report shows rising enrollment in KidCare
URBANA - A two-year effort to promote health coverage for uninsured children and pregnant women has apparently paid off.
The latest report card from Project 18 shows a jump in enrollment in the state's KidCare insurance program, which is open to children in families who earn 185 percent or less of the federal poverty level - $18,104 for a family of four.
The number of Champaign County children enrolled in KidCare rose from 1,712 in January 2001 to 2,442 a year later. By November, the number had risen to 2,811.
And the number in KidCare's Assist plan, which provides the broadest level of health coverage, more than doubled, from 830 in January 2001 to 1,729 in November 2002.
Still, the report said 12 percent, or 4,603, of the county's children remain uninsured. And uneven statistics on infant mortality and access to prenatal care are also troubling.
"Obviously, we still have some ways to go," said Mark Driscoll, planning analyst at the Champaign County Mental Health Board.
The report card, which Project 18 started publishing in 1995, looks at poverty rates, infant mortality and teen birth statistics, child abuse and neglect, domestic violence rates, performance in school, juvenile crime, drug use and homelessness, among other factors.
Officials caution that the focus is on long-term trends, not year-to-year fluctuations. The report card is a tool for local governments, schools, hospitals and social service agencies deciding where to target their resources.
Among the findings:
- Infant mortality rates continue to fluctuate, hovering around 10 per 1,000 live births for the past few years. The big concern is that rates vary significantly by race, at 5 per 1,000 for whites, 28 per 1,000 for blacks and 21 per 1,000 for all other races in 2000, the report said.
- Showing little change over the last decade, 7 percent of county children born in 2000 had low birth weight, a leading cause of infant death. Black children had a rate of 15 percent, more than double the 6 percent for whites and other races.
- Access to prenatal care is generally improving, with 88 percent of babies receiving first-trimester prenatal care in 2000, up from 78 percent in 1988. Prenatal care for black infants has also improved during that time but lags behind other races, at 74 percent.
- Teen births dropped slightly in 2000 to 9.4 percent of live births, or 212, down from 9.6 percent the previous year. Aside from a few blips, the overall trend is down from a high of 12.3 percent in 1993, following national trends.
- The number of children in substitute care - foster homes or other placements - continues to drop, from 651 in 1996 to 403 in 2001. Census figures show about 70 percent of the county's children live with both biological parents, 21.2 percent live with single mothers, and 5.3 percent live with blended families, grandparents or other relatives.
- The number of preschool spaces available in 2002-03 rose by 46, to 855, but remained far below the 1,102 available in 2000-01.
- More than 10,500 child-care slots were available in 2002, including day-care centers, family homes, preschools, camps and other facilities. The question, officials said, is whether they are affordable and accessible.
- The number of juveniles under court supervision continued its steep decline to 124 in 2002, a 24 percent drop from the previous three-year average.
Fewer youths were also committed to the county's Juvenile Detention Center in 2000 - 14, down from 19 the previous year. The average length of stay also dropped, from 22.6 days in 2000 to 18.3 in 2001.
The numbers reflect efforts to keep children out of the court system and step up intervention programs for juveniles who are already in it, officials said.