BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - One out of seven children across the country will experience child abuse at some point in their childhood. It’s a sobering statistic and, in Mississippi, it’s a number that is increasing.
While our InvestigateTV team has explored national statistics through its three-part investigative series on child abuse, we wanted to see what those numbers looked like in Mississippi.
The latest numbers from the Children’s Bureau Maltreatment Report shows nearly 10,500 children in the Magnolia State were abused just during 2017. That’s a 40% increase from the numbers reported just four years prior in 2013.
But in a world with so much information and education, why do those numbers continue to rise and what is being done to keep children safe?
For those answers, we looked to the people who speak out for abused kids every single day, who understand firsthand what physical, sexual and emotional abuse looks like.
Many of the same advocates who speak out against child abuse and work tirelessly to help abused children come from painful backgrounds themselves. Backgrounds that are each unique in the way they experience and remember the abuse they underwent.
Sasha Joseph Neulinger is one of those advocates. He may not be a doctor or a social worker but he is an expert in child abuse.
“Unfortunately, that joy and that innocence, it was interrupted," said Neulinger.
Now, he’s using his talents as a filmmaker to tell his story.
“When I was four years old, I was sexually abused for the first time," he recalled.
Neulinger endured that abuse for four years from three separate family members. When it was time to tell his story, he found himself having to tell it multiple times, a process he said was traumatizing in and of itself.
Former Georgia Special Victim’s Detective Kevin McNeil agrees. He’s now CEO of The Twelve Project, educating others on the harmful effects of abuse.
“A lot of times what happened is, inadvertently, we would actually use the victim to get to the suspect," said McNeil. "So we would actually re-traumatize the victim and use them as a pawn to make a case against the suspect.”
Both Neulinger and McNeil’s experiences have led them to become huge proponents of child advocacy centers.
Mississippi has eleven child advocacy centers. Those centers act as a buffer for a child who has been abused. Without them, a child may have to repeat their story multiple times, reliving that trauma to social workers, doctors, therapists, attorneys, judges, law enforcement, and others.
“That’s emotionally exhausting for a child and it’s secondary trauma," said Neulinger, who relived his experiences over and over again in an effort to bring his abusers to justice.
Child advocacy centers bring a team of experts together to help so that a child who has suffered traumatic abuse only has to tell their story once to an advocate. That advocate then collaborates with others to push the investigation forward.
Those same advocates also offer invaluable resources to vulnerable children by offering resources like therapy and other ways to help them heal from the trauma.
Each April, which is designated as Child Abuse Awareness Month, those centers come together for state’s annual One Loud Voice conference.
This year, Nuelinger and McNeil were two of the many guest speakers at the conference, which was held in Biloxi. They say child advocacy centers have revolutionized how child abuse cases are handled and how children share their stories.
According to Karla Tye, the executive director of Child Advocacy Centers in Mississippi, the number of children with traumatic stories to share has skyrocketed up more than 137% in the last four years.
“It’s not that those cases weren’t there," explained Tye. "They’re just now coming through the
system, in a way. They’re no longer falling through the cracks.”
Last year, 572 children came through the South Mississippi Child Advocacy Center. With numbers continuing to rise, the center’s director Krystle Hilliiard said the center’s goal is to make sure no child falls through the cracks of an already-over-tasked child welfare system.
“We have to make sure that we have one place that those agencies come together,” said Krystle Hilliard, the director of South Mississippi Child Advocacy Center. “We work together on the best interests of the child.”
Hilliard continued: “CPS would send a referral to law enforcement and it would just sit there, or law enforcement would do the same thing but then there was no one to really hold any one accountable.”
Holding “the system” accountable is key according to victims like Neulinger, who says he is encouraged to see progress in protecting children from the horrors he endured.
“If we give them access to healing and justice right now when their brains are still elastic, we’re giving ourselves an opportunity for reduced numbers in the future and a brighter future to give to them and future generations," he said.
Gray Media’s InvestigateTV team has been working on an in-depth national investigation into child abuse. To read those stories and more, click HERE.