As an officer in the Meridian Police Department, I have had to remove from their homes children suffering from abuse, neglect and abandonment. During these incidents, the children are — as to be expected — upset, saddened and emotionally withdrawn. The adults are often angry and confused, and sometimes violent. Removing these children is accomplished in the aftermath of discovery of danger, resulting in the destruction of the only family unit the child has known.
Here in the state of Idaho, apart from the rare occasion petitioned by Health & Welfare, only law enforcement officers have the authority to remove a child who is deemed to be in imminent danger.
Child abuse and neglect occurs in Idaho more than any of us would guess. Last year, there were 710 children in out-of-home placement in the 4th Judicial District (Ada, Boise, Elmore and Valley counties). What does this mean? There are a whole bunch of children depending on the generosity of volunteer guardians ad litem to represent their best interests in court. That is where Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) comes into play. Through local nonprofits around the state, children are advocated for in court by these wonderful volunteers. But even as I compose this letter, the fact that all these nonprofits are still in desperate need of more volunteers weighs heavy on my heart.
All children, regardless of their age, should have access to a guardian ad litem and an attorney. But due to the shortage of volunteers, some courts prioritize children younger than 12, leaving scores of older teens under-represented. How many teens do you know who are making positive decisions on their own behalf and have the ability to navigate the judicial system with an attorney alone? We need to step up for these children.
As a law enforcement officer working child abuse cases, I’ve sat in court alongside CASA volunteers. However, the reason I sit on the Board of Directors for Family Advocates is to prevent child abuse and neglect from happening in the first place. After so many horror stories and broken lives over the years, our community is starting to look upstream to the issues that cause domestic violence and child abuse.
While Family Advocates has been supporting families in our community for 40 years, there is so much more work still to be done. We need to stabilize families and build healthy support systems now — before child abuse happens. We know children who don’t enter the foster care system are much more likely to be successful in life. However, those who experience abuse and neglect are 9 times more likely to go to jail or prison, 25 percent more likely to experience teen pregnancy, and 30 percent more likely to abuse their own children. That is a cycle that Idahoans must break.
Join us in advocating for the well-being of our community’s most vulnerable members — its children. With the time, talent and treasure from people like you, we can prevent our children from being traumatized.
Ray Ellis is an officer with the Meridian Police Department.