Child abuse reports rise in S. Florida

FORT LAUDERDALE -- South Florida has seen a rise in child-abuse cases and officials are calling for more awareness after a year in which the state’s social service agency has investigated some gruesome ones.

In Broward County, cases rose to 15,748 in 2010, compared with 14,876 the year before, according to the state Department of Children & Families. In Palm Beach County, cases rose to 12,183 -- up from 11,947 the previous year.

“You’ll see a lot of domestic violence,” DCF spokesman Mark Riordan said. “That’s where the cycle is perpetuated. It’s a learned response.”

Despite increases, DCF officials attribute part of the rise to differences in their reporting system, which now assigns investigators to cases that aren’t necessarily neglect or abuse. Cases now can include the power going out at a home because parents failed to pay the power bill, Riordan said.

Experts say it’s things such as a pile of unpaid bills because of a poor economy that can lead parents to excess stress and child abuse.

The hotline got 831 calls in 2010 related to child abuse and neglect, up from 327 calls in 2006.

Despite the rise in abuse reports, the DCF removed fewer children from homes.

In Broward County, 1,504 children were placed in foster care in 2010, down from 1,915 in 2006. In Palm Beach County, 856 children were placed into foster care, down from 1,507 children during the same time frame, records show.

When DCF investigators “determine that the family dynamic is suitable, we will allow children to remain in the home,” Riordan said. He stressed, though, “that we must deem the situation safe.”

Cases of child abuse and neglect were among some of the most heinous crimes in 2010. Murder-suicides also contributed to domestic crimes.

In September in Riviera Beach, Patrick Alexander Dell, 41, culminated an abusive marriage by killing his wife and four stepchildren and later killing himself. In November in Pembroke Pines, an 11 year-old and her mother were killed in a murder-suicide. The girl’s father discovered their bodies and told police his wife was suffering from depression.

In other cases, a West Palm Beach mother with three pending DCF investigations into her children’s welfare went out clubbing after midnight in July, leaving her children -- ages 10, 3 and 6 months -- home alone. In September, a man beat six children, five of whom were his own, with the flat side of a machete west of West Palm Beach.

In Fort Lauderdale in January, an enraged man pummeling his wife fractured his baby son’s skull as the wife tried to protect the boy, police said. In April, a depressed mother allegedly strangled her child in Hollywood.

A poor economy may also be what caused increases in food stamp applications.

Palm Beach County led the state in increased applicants for food stamps, DCF records show. In November, 151,448 individuals in Palm Beach County received the benefits. The number has steadily climbed from 75,197 recipients in January 2009, the DCF said. In Broward County, 232,144 people got food stamps in November, rising from 130,218 in January 2009.

When stress invades the household, it can become broken. Tensions rise when bills aren’t paid and a crying child can escalate the negative atmosphere, Powell said.