By John Toole
---- — New Hampshire’s child advocacy centers are seeing an increase in victims.
The Granite State Children’s Alliance released statistics yesterday showing a 3.8 percent increase year-over-year for child victims of crimes.
The state’s child advocacy centers handled 2,065 cases in 2012, up from 1,989 in 2011.
“We are seeing an increase,” alliance executive director Kristie Palestino said yesterday.
In Rockingham County, the year-over-year numbers were level at 348 cases, Rockingham County Child Advocacy Center executive director Maureen Sullivan said.
“We average about 350 cases a year,” she said.
At its offices in Derry and Portsmouth, the Rockingham County center already has handled 60 cases in the first two months of this year, she said.
Palestino said overall numbers tend to increase every year, though not because crime is changing.
“People are more aware of it,” she said, “talk more and more people come forward.”
The numbers represent reported cases, not actual numbers. Advocates believe the actual victim count is as much as 90 percent higher, but held down by stigma and other factors.
“It is shame, it is fear,” Palestino said. “Children keep things in to protect their families.”
“Only 10 percent report,” Sullivan said. “The hard part is this is a topic people like to sweep it under the rug.”
Even when the Penn State football abuse scandal presented a national awareness moment, people had trouble with it, Sullivan said.
“People didn’t want to talk,” she said.
Derry police Chief Edward Garone, one of New Hampshire’s longest serving chiefs, agrees the statistics represent a fraction of actual numbers.
“It’s certainly much higher than what is reported,” he said.
Garone speculates the increase this year reflects the ease of reporting made possible through the centers.
“I think parents and caretakers are more comfortable reporting because of the advocacy centers,” he said.
Sexual abuse cases account for the bulk of crimes. There was some good news statewide, a slight decrease from 1,790 to 1,655 cases involving sex abuse.
Physical abuse cases were up from 119 to 189.
There also was an increase, from 79 to 146, in cases where children witnessed violent crime.
The percentage breakdown of all cases by age showed the largest number, 40 percent, was for those 7 to 12. Thirty percent were 6 or younger; 30 percent were teenagers.
Most of the victims – more than 95 percent – suffered at the hands of relatives, neighbors or friends. Palestino said that underscores why it is important for parents to be vigilant, “even with people they know and trust.”
The alliance releases numbers annually to highlight the issue and also the work the centers do for victims.
This year’s release is especially timely, however, with the alliance set to embark on a statewide awareness campaign in April.
County-based centers will host events. The alliance will kick the campaign off April 17 in front of the Statehouse in Concord. Individual lights will represent each victim served last year.
“We’re trying to bring more attention to the work we’re doing,” Palestino said.
The campaign will teach children about safety and let parents know how to recognize signs of child abuse. The idea is to let people know abuse is a problem in every town.
The advocacy centers act on referrals from the attorney general and police departments. They serve as a safe, child friendly location for investigators to interview victims and assist victims with recovery.
Garone, who with Rockingham County Attorney Jim Reams gets credit from Sullivan for helping establish the first center, sees their strength in making a tragic situation easier for victims.
The centers let victims tell their story one time, Garone said.
“That makes it much more palatable for the victim,” he said.
Palestino said the centers and the alliance serve as resources, too, for those who have questions.
She said people can get more information from the alliance’s website, cac-nh.org, or by contacting their local center.
The Rockingham County center, the first to operate in New Hampshire, can be visited at cacnh.org.
Sullivan said the advocacy centers help keep down law enforcement expenses.
She estimates the Rockingham program has saved the county $6.5 million in expenses police otherwise would have incurred since its founding in 2000.