Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

April Brings Awareness to Judges’ Year-Round Work against Child Abuse

For lawyers who go the judiciary route, their judgeships can lead to any number of courts. But the ones that become callings, tend to be the most personal. That’s especially the case for juvenile and family court judges.

“Protection of children has always been a focus for me – making sure they have a good home life and good structure, and an ability to get an education,” said Marion County Family Court Judge Deborah Alspach.

For the joys that come with this legal jurisdiction – namely adoption – there are many sad reminders, particularly child abuse.

“That is the largest part of our docket, unfortunately,” said Judge Alspach.

Since 1983, April has been recognized as National Child Abuse Prevention Month, but for judges and their staff, their work brings attention to a widespread concern year-round.

While physical signs of abuse are more evident, experts say it’s the suffering beneath the surface that’s far more prevalent.

“Quite frankly, I can't think of a single child-involved situation that doesn’t have mental health issues, either for the child or the parents of the child,” said Marion County Family Court Judge Robert Fragale.

In many cases, abuse or neglect is the result of a drug addiction. According to a report by the Public Children Services Association of Ohio, more than 16,000 juveniles were placed in foster care in 2018. That’s an increase of 3,500 in five years, which is mostly accredited to the rise in opioid addiction.

Ohio's Department of Jobs and Family Services has an interactive dashboard for its Children Services branch that monitors the number of abuse cases, children removed from homes due to parental substance use, and several other reports for all 88 counties.

“It can be a very long time for a child and I think it’s very difficult for them to be in foster placement for those many months,” said Judge Alspach.

As these children deal with that damage and uncertainty, the courts coordinate with those who see the juveniles. Typically, the groups include child welfare advocates, loved ones, and teachers.

“We try to establish ongoing lines of communication with our schools because we believe that the schools are the first ones that see issues with regard to children not being in the classroom, children acting inappropriately, inappropriate behaviors,” Judge Fragale said.

From there, it’s a collective effort to address a victim’s issues to not only treat the troubles of the present, but prevent further harm in the future. In many cases, the environment and experiences these children endure becomes cyclical. For court officials, one of their greatest fears is when the abused are driven toward a dark path, resulting in crime and the abuse of others.

“We deal with so many kids that are traumatized, and it’s important that we're aware of that so that we can try to find out what we can do to provide the services and support that they need,” Judge Fragale said.