Against an adult, kids are defenseless.

We use words that mask that just enough to make it bearable. Kids are vulnerable. Kids are impressionable. Kids are at risk. But we don’t often say that small children are helpless, assailable, victimized. They’re one bad grown-up away from a different kind of life.

It’s maddening to think what it must feel like to be in that position as a child, and when we get too close to the truth — when someone is arrested for abusing a child in the shadows for years, especially a trusted member of the public, as has been alleged in Etowah County within the last year — it leaves us feeling hollow.

There are laws in place to try and mitigate that vulnerability. One is called “mandatory reporting,” and it’s just what it sounds like: When someone in a specific occupation witnesses abuse or evidence of abuse of a child, physical or sexual, they’re mandated by Alabama law to report it to the authorities. To willfully ignore evidence is a misdemeanor, and can come with a fine of up to $500 and six months jail time.

Mandatory reporting occupations and organizations are varied, but most will seem obvious: school staff and faculty, at both primary and secondary schools; doctor’s offices, including dentists, optometrists, chiropractors and podiatrists; medical staff that includes surgeons, medical examiners, coroners and pharmacists; mental health professionals, law enforcement, social workers and members of the clergy (though there are some provisions for confidentiality); and anyone called upon to render aid or medical assistance to any child.

Once the worker sees something, they’re required to say something, either by phone or in person, with a written report to follow. While they do have to go on the record with police or the county’s department of human resources, their involvement in the report is kept confidential, according to Patricia Falcon, director of the Barrie Center, Etowah County’s child advocacy center.

“You can’t be sued as a mandatory reporter. It’s your legal responsibility for mandatory reporters and if it turns out to be unfounded, there’s no legal repercussion,” Falcon said.

Some folks might read that statement as, “There’s nothing to stop someone from faking a complaint,” when it’s really saying, “There’s nothing to stop someone from telling the truth.”

Those situations in which a child has been coached to lie — “I fell and got hurt” — are now a non-dilemma for potential reporters. If the story is true, professionals from the police department and DHR will be able to suss it out, having been trained to look for indicators of real child abuse. If the story isn’t true, the report goes a long way toward getting that child help.

Once a report is made to the police or DHR, the receiving organization will alert the other, and get the Barrie Center involved. The center has professionals who will talk with a child to get their story, including details of incidents and the circumstances of abuse. Once they’ve completed the process, called a forensic interview, the Barrie Center’s staff members act as advocates for the child, speaking on their behalf and recounting details for law enforcement, DHR and the courts.

“You can’t just have a laundry list of questions,” Falcon said of the interviews. “We’re meeting that child where they’re at, we don’t put words into their mouths, we don’t introduce people into the conversation, even if we may have known some information because we have it on the report. We’re not able to introduce information without them bringing it up.”

Reports are going up each year. According to Falcon, the Barrie Center performed 316 forensic interviews this fiscal year, up 21 percent from 253 interviews with primary victims in 2017. Secondary victims — family members of the children, mostly — numbered 294 in 2017, making a total of 547 people served by the center last year, just shy of two per day.

The data sheet said that 75 percent of the reports were about sexual assault in 2017 (the rest were physical abuse), that 66 percent of the primary victims were female and 77 percent were Caucasian, 17 percent were African-American and 6 percent were Hispanic or of other races.

According to the Alabama Department of Health, child abuse and neglect is the eighth biggest health concern for Alabama, over diabetes and geriatrics, but below cancer and sexually transmitted infections.

The Child Welfare League of America’s 2015 state statistics showed 22,067 reports of abuse and neglect of children in Alabama, and 21,722 reports were referred for investigation.

According to Falcon, 1 in 10 children are assaulted before they turn 18 years old, and she’s sure that there are more children who are being abused in the county now that have yet to be reported.

Falcon said the Barrie Center’s increased caseloads over the years might not be a sign of additional abuse, but rather that more people are taking signs of child abuse seriously and making more reports. Children are learning what is and isn’t OK at an earlier age, and they’re being taught to say something if they’re being touched inappropriately or hurt. Falcon said that it’s important for family members to reinforce those lessons frequently.

In light of highly politicized debates about rape allegations across the nation, Falcon said that it’s important to take allegations made by children seriously.

“It’s a very low percentage of children that are not telling the truth. Generally, when a child makes an outcry the most important thing someone can do is believe them,” Falcon said.

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Mandatory reporters should get basic information from a child when they feel it’s time to make a report: name, address, parent information and whatever specifics kids offer, or indications of abuse the reporter has seen. Adults gathering information for a report don't have to play at detective work; issuing a report with the basics will get professionals on the case.

“If a child does disclose to someone, show your concern, but let the child talk at their pace,” Falcon said. “Don’t ask specific questions about it, but believe the child as they’re reaching out for help, and let them use their own words.”

People who aren’t required by law to report signs of abuse can still do so with ease; neighbors, family members and others can simply call the police or DHR with their suspicion and make a report anonymously. While some parents may not appreciate the authorities stopping by to discuss child welfare, the chance to help a defenseless kid far outweighs the risk of embarrassing someone.

“Really, anyone, whether a mandatory reporter or not, can make a report if they have cause for concern,” said Falcon. “Whether looking at it from the legal side or looking at it morally because it’s the right thing to do, I hope people will continue to make those reports.”

To make a report, get in touch with the Etowah County Department of Human Resources at 256-549-4135, the Etowah County Sheriff’s Department at 256-546-2825 (also doubles as after-hours number for ECDHR), the Gadsden Police Department at 256-549-4500 or your local municipality’s police department.