Several dozen prosecutors, social workers and police officers yesterday received the first of four days of child abuse investigation training, as part of Howard County's effort to curb assaults on children.
Armed with slides and videos, lecturers representing the U.S. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention are giving talks at the Columbia Hilton through Thursday to help investigators increase their ability to identify child abuse victims and their abusers.
Yesterday's session, closed to the public to protect confidential investigative techniques and victims' identities, focused on sexual abuse, a growing problem in Howard County and elsewhere.
"This particular type of abuse knows no boundaries -- race, economics," said Detective Brian Killacky of the Chicago Police Department, during a break in his lectures yesterday.
His talk was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
In 1990, the Maryland Department of Human Resources substantiated 37 sexual abuse cases in Howard County.
That total rose to 39 in 1991, and 49 in 1992, according to the department's latest figures.
The Columbia-based Howard County Sexual Assault Center reported 60 sexual assaults against children in 1993.
Social service workers attribute the increase to more victims reporting abuse. But they also say that most people still are reluctant to come forward about assaults.
"What I'm telling them is that most sexual abuse of children is not reported," Detective Killacky said.
The reason is that many of the abusers are known by the children and have convinced the child to remain silent, either with gifts of money and toys or by threatening the child.
"Most of the offenders in this country are relatives of the kids, living with the kids or have legal access to the kids," he said.
Overall, Howard County has one of the lowest rates of reported child abuse in the state.
In 1992, there were 5.7 cases in Howard County per 1,000 children, up from 4.4 cases per 1,000 children in 1990, according to the Maryland Department of Human Resources' latest statistics.
Statewide, the rates were 8.2 cases per 1,000 in 1990 and 9.3 per 1,000 children in 1992.
But Shirley Harrell, director of victims assistance for the Howard County State's Attorney's office, and an organizer of the four-day conference, said that "there's more going on in Howard County than people are willing to admit."
Ms. Harrell said she put the program together as an abuse prevention tool for those handling child abuse cases.
Nationwide, many cities and counties have formed child advocacy networks, drawing on staff from police departments, social service agencies and state's attorney's offices.
Howard County has its own Child Advocacy Center, which handles abuse cases in the county. The center co-sponsored yesterday's training program with Howard County State's Attorney's Office.
Cpl. Steve Martin of the Howard County Police Department, one of those who attended yesterday's program, said he has handled several child abuse cases in the last 4 1/2 years and wants to be ready for others.
"They come up infrequently, but when they come up, you want to be prepared," he said. "Especially being a parent, I'm a lot more sensitive to child abuse."
Today, the conferees are expected to receive briefings on sexual abuse abuse within families. Tomorrow, the agenda will cover physical abuse and neglect. Thursday's agenda will focus on interviewing techniques for investigators dealing with victims of abuse.