Gun attack: Children were referred to counselling following the shooting of Kimwandae Walker outside Victor Scott Primary School, above, on Good Friday last year. *File photo
Gun attack: Children were referred to counselling following the shooting of Kimwandae Walker outside Victor Scott Primary School, above, on Good Friday last year. *File photo
WEDNESDAY, APR. 13: Rising poverty and the fall-out from escalating gang violence have been blamed for an alarming increase in child abuse.

A growing trend of young teenagers distributing explicit pictures of themselves via BlackBerry or Facebook also contributed to a record number of cases last year.

Figures released exclusively to the Bermuda Sun show there were 637 reports of child abuse in 2010 — the highest since records began.

In 336 of those cases an investigation confirmed that some form of abuse had taken place.

The spectrum of cases range from serious physical or sexual abuse, including rape, to reports of young children being left unsupervised.

Counsellors say they are dealing, for the first time, with emotionally scarred youngsters, traumatized by the effects of gun violence.

Sherri Vanderpool, a social worker with Child and Family Services, said that in some cases, children were at risk because of where they lived.

She added: “We have had cases with children living in a household where a relative has been targeted by gangs.

“In those cases we will try to intervene and put counselling services in place. We may also recommend that the child be in a different household.”

Other youngsters are referred because they have fallen under the influence of gangs.

Ms Vanderpool said: “These are not usually children running around saying I am a member of this gang or that gang.

“More likely we will get a report that the child is hanging around with known gang members, maybe they are smoking dope and the parents do not know what to do.”

An increasing number of children have heard gunfire on their street, witnessed shootings in person or known people who have been murdered.

The gun murder of Kimwandae Walker in front of a crowd of children, including his son and daughter, during a Good Friday kite flying event at Victor Scott Primary School last April prompted a handful of referrals for counselling.

But the high profile case is just one of 13 murders since December last year. Each one has had a knock-on effect.

Recession

Ms Vanderpool said: “A lot of young kids know the victims — they are their relatives.

“They hear about them getting shot and it sticks with them.”

The recession has also led to an increase in abuse and neglect cases, as the pressure of working multiple jobs or living in overcrowded housing takes its toll.

Maureen Trew, intake coordinator at Child and Family Services, said: “Now unemployment is more of an issue we are finding a lot of cases where families are coming together to find a place to live.

“You might have a two-bedroom house and one family is living in one room, the other family is living in the next.”

The claustrophobia can lead to a variety of potentially dangerous situations for young children. Ms Vanderpool added: “When you have multiple children or multiple families sharing accommodation, sometimes it means younger children are exposed to activities they wouldn’t have been exposed to before.”

In other cases, housing is simply deemed inappropriate for health reasons.

Social workers have had to don protective clothing to enter some homes that were infested with insects. Others are deemed structurally unsafe.

Social worker Annisha Peets said: “We have cases of people living in derelict housing with children.

“Sometimes they are paying rent but the house is just not adequate to be rented out — they don’t want to complain because it is cheap.”

In a string of neglect cases, overworked parents were simply leaving their children home alone because of the demands of working two or three jobs.

Ms Vanderpool said: “The highest number of complaints we get is for children left unsupervised — sometimes you get a 12-year-old left in charge of a three-year-old.

“People are leaving one job at 5pm, home for half an hour and going to a second job — they leave the older sibling in charge of younger children. In some cases children are effectively parenting themselves.”

Physical abuse cases are often linked to the same circumstances. “They are not making enough money, they are working long hours, the child may not be performing well in school and they get frustrated and overwhelmed.”

Stress

She added that social workers did not separate children from their parents unless it was the only option.

She said: “When you have four or five children running around, you’re working two jobs, we understand where the stress is coming from.”

In the first instance, social workers look to help deal with the circumstances that led to the neglect or the abuse.

Ms Vanderpool said: “A lot of the time people hear child protection and think we are coming in to assess whether the child needs to be removed.

“What we are assessing is what support services you might need.”

As part of Child Abuse Prevention Month, people are being urged to come forward with their concerns. To report cases of child abuse call the referral line  on 278-9111 between 9am-5pm on weekdays. Out of hours, call the police who will contact on-call social workers.