Child abuse reaches new highs on Long Island

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Suffolk County broke a record in March, but not the kind it wants to brag about - for the first time, more than 1,000 cases of child abuse or neglect were reported in a month. "We knew it was going to happen sooner or later. It finally happened," said Dennis Nowak, a spokesman for the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. The increase to 1,015 cases "was a big jump and this month is going in the same direction. We might break 1,000 again." In a week in which Suffolk police made arrests in two horrific abuse cases involving 10 children, officials say the high-profile cases underscore what is a growing problem amid deepening economic problems. "I think it has a lot to do with the economy," said Dr. Bella Silecchia, a child abuse specialist at Nassau University Medical Center. "People are under a lot of stress and who it cascades onto are the innocent victims in the family - the children." Nowak said there were 9,534 cases reported last year in Suffolk, an increase of 8 percent over 2007. And this year, the numbers keep growing: the first five months of this year are up 5.5 percent compared to the same time period last year. He also said the severity of the cases is increasing. Last year, 30 percent of reported cases were substantiated as credible. For the first five months of this year, it was 32.4 percent, although in March and May it hit at least 35 percent. In Nassau it is a similar story. The number of cases grew from 6,624 to 7,192 between 2007 and 2008, an 8 percent increase, said Karen Garber, a spokeswoman for the Nassau County Department of Social Services. For the first five months of this year the number of cases are up 3 percent compared to the same period last year. Officials and experts give a variety of explanations for the increases. Nowak noted that a law that went into effect in October 2007 requires professionals including medical and educational personnel to report suspected child abuse or neglect directly to authorities. Previously, they could report it to a superior such as a principal and then decide whether to contact authorities. Garber said public attention surrounding the case of Leatrice Brewer, a New Cassel resident who drowned her three children in February 2008, contributed to an increase in reports in Nassau. But officials and child abuse experts said the economy is a factor, too. "It certainly adds stress to families when people are out of work," said Cynthia Scott, executive director of the Garden City-based Coalition Against Child Abuse and Neglect.

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