SPECIAL SERIES THIS WEEK: All this week, KVAL News will bring you special reports on the problem of child abuse and neglect on the 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. nightly news and on KVAL.com. Coming up Monday: Who you can call if you suspect a child is being abused.
EUGENE, Ore. -- Children severely injured or sexually molested, the helpless victims of child abuse and neglect - the cases still haunt Alex Gardner, the Lane County district attorney.
He calls child abuse the biggest local crime problem in Lane County.
"I'd say it's right at the top of our list of concerns," he said. "Children are our most precious resource and harm done to them early on is harm that tends to be reflected through their lives."
State human service numbers show that in 2009, just over 1,000 children in Lane County were determined to be victims of child abuse or neglect. That is a 12 percent increase over the 912 cases the year before.
Just as awful are sex abuse numbers. National trends show one out of four girls and one out of six boys will be sexually abused by the age of 16.
Here in Lane County, that could mean as many as 8,700 girls and 5,800 boys as potential victims.
"Even if you assume that that's off by a factor of two, then we have thousands and thousands of children being sexually abused every year in Lane County," Gardner said.
But child abuse is not just a list of facts and figures: it's real children's lives, and when the damage is done, a lot of healing has to take place.
Ground zero for that healing: the Kids First program at the district attorney's office. In the Kids First offices, child abuse victims are gently and humanely interviewed and medical exams are given.
"We're probably seeing every day, or every other day, children with abusive injuries," said Dr. Elizabeth Heskett, the Kids First staff physician.
"We protect the kid medically; we get good quality evidence for the prosecution in the case," Gardner said, "and then we help, working with the Department of Human Services, to get the child the support."
Experts feel many cases of abuse go unreported.
"If the children are being abused within their homes are not only hesitant to come forward," said Tina Morgan, director of First Kids, "they're working hard at keeping it hidden."
In 2008, Kids First did 156 sex abuse evaluations and 162 exams for physical abuse. Gardner said it's reaching the point where every day, a new child is being processed in Lane County for child abuse.
"If the community saw what we see, this wouldn't be tolerated," he said. "It would not be tolerated."