Nearly 2,000 cases of child abuse were reported in Yakima County last year.
Of those cases, 72 were found to be valid claims, making Yakima County the third highest in the state to receive referrals for child abuse cases.
Leading the charge to prevent child abuse is the Department of Social and Health Services.
Doreen Perez and Yolanda Quintero, social work supervisors in the Sunnyside office of the Department of Social and Health Services, said most child abuse cases concern physical neglect. They said physical neglect is the leading cause of child death resulting from child abuse.
"Sometimes it is difficult to tell if a child abuse referral is founded," said Perez, stating that social workers can encounter a case where a child is unable to communicate regarding what has happened to them.
Twenty-three of the 245 cases investigated by the Sunnyside office were inconclusive in 2007 because of a lack of evidence.
Quintero said an example of an inconclusive case would involve an 18-month-old admitted to the hospital whose parents are not willing to accept responsibility for an incident.
"We're about helping families," Perez stated, saying that often times children are not removed from the home when services are available to assist the family.
Quintero said there are many services available for families in Yakima County. She stated those services can involve chemical dependency treatment, parenting classes or mental health support services, depending on the needs of the child or family.
In 2007, state legislators passed a bill allowing child neglect cases to be handled.
Perez said child neglect has been historically difficult to prove, however the bill allows social workers to define a case and provide services to families.
"Before, a horrific event had to occur to establish a problem," she said. With the legislation now in place, a social worker can identify child neglect patterns and either provide court intervention or other services, including chemical dependency treatment for parents of a child.
Most services at the Department of Social and Health Services are voluntary, according to Quintero. She said because of the voluntary participation, parents or caregivers could remove themselves from receiving services.
However, if the services are court ordered, the participant must continue receiving services, providing less chance of issues becoming a greater concern.
Community members are encouraged by Perez and Quintero to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. "It doesn't mean the case will be founded," Perez noted, stating that a referral is a tool to help protect children who may be in need of further assistance.
"The sooner we can intervene, the better for the child," she said.
Quintero said, "We are here to create a more nurturing and healthy community."
The ladies said the agency provides community awareness through its presence at school events, handing out child identification cards and being available when questions arise.
Organizations and schools can also request presentations at events by calling either Perez or Quintero.
They said some of the signs of child abuse or neglect can include unexplained absences from school, fear of a caregiver, fear of going home, unexplained injuries, poor hygiene or sudden behavior changes.
Most referrals, according to Perez and Quintero, come from staff members at area schools. Law enforcement and health care providers are the second leading references of abuse or neglect cases.
Community members can prevent child abuse or neglect in many ways. They can volunteer time, teach through discipline, educate themselves and others and support prevention programs.
To contact Perez, Quintero or another case worker, call 836-5750.
"There are a number of causes leading to child abuse or neglect...some are situational and some are chronic. However, stopping the cycle of abuse is imperative," said Perez.