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Child abuse cases are rising in Clark County. Local leaders say more education is crucial


For more than 40 years, April has been known as National Child Abuse Prevention Month — meant to raise awareness and help stop child abuse.

And in some parts of the country, abuse has declined. But in recent years in Clark County, cases are increasing.

In 2023, Clark County Child Protective Services investigated 11,950 allegations of abuse and neglect. More than one-fourth of those — nine per day — were substantiated. That was a 10 percent increase from 2022. And from 2017 to 2021, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that cases of child sexual abuse increased from 5.2 to 7.2 percent.

Beyond Las Vegas having a long-standing history of elevated sexual crime rates across the board (we’re fifth in the nation for our proportion of registered sex offenders, with one for every 163 residents), experts attribute the rise in child sexual abuse to lingering consequences of the pandemic.

“People were more enclosed with kids,” said Michelle Saldivar, the outreach coordinator for Prevent Child Abuse Nevada, a local organization focused on eradicating all forms of child maltreatment. “There wasn't a lot of interaction with other people around that might have seen those signs of child sexual abuse. … In the past, before COVID, maybe about eight out of 10 times it was a teacher or some educational person that would call CPS to raise a concern about any signs or behaviors that they would see within the child.”

According to RAINN, these signs can include but are not limited to bodily trauma like bruises or bleeding, sudden mood or personality changes, nightmares, bed wetting, changes in eating habits, and an increase in symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Educating people on how to recognize these changes is the aim of the national-level campaign Enough Abuse, which is currently administered in-state by Prevent Child Abuse Nevada and Signs of Hope (formerly the Rape Crisis Center).

In Nevada, prevention-oriented educational materials — like those provided by Enough Abuse — are mandated in each school, pursuant to Erin’s Law, which Nevada adopted back in 2013. It is now one of 38 states that have done so.

“We have to give spaces for kids to be able to disclose [sexual abuse],” Saldivar said.

Disclosure is especially important, since few child sex abuse cases are ever reported to law enforcement. Though one in four women and one in 20 men self-report having been sexually abused as a child, 87 percent of those self-reporters said they never went to police. And, it’s estimated that 93 percent of the victims know their abusers, which can have a chilling effect on reporting, said Sergeant Nicholas Madsen, who heads the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s Juvenile Sexual Assault Unit.

“Unfortunately [victims are] told by offenders that if you tell anybody [about abuse], you're doing it too, so the police will take you away,” Madsen said. “And kids as young as four, five, six, seven — if they're hearing this from someone who has a position of authority and trust within their family, they don't have a reason not to believe it.”

Madsen and Saldivar both agree that awareness is part of the solution to decreasing the prevalence of juvenile sex crimes. Most recently, on April 10, Clark County turned the lights on the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign blue to recognize Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Saldivar said actions like this are valuable, since they’re proven to increase people’s knowledge of abuse.

“There is a study that shows that having positive messaging about issues like child sexual abuse or abuse in general does have an impact in the way that people think about [them],” she said.

In the meantime, on the individual level, Madsen stressed the importance of teaching children about bodily autonomy.

“As soon as they're able to know how to say arm, shoulder, head, we should be teaching [children] the anatomically correct names for their genitals,” he said. “There's some anecdotal studies that offenders who deal with a kid who knows what a vagina or a penis is, is going to stay away from that kid, because that's a kid who has been talked to, who somebody has educated, who is confident, who will end up talking. But a kid who has been taught that our bodies are shameful, we don't talk about it, sex is taboo, it's off limits, nobody wants to hear about it — offenders tend to gravitate towards those kids.”

More Resources:
National Children's Alliance
Southern Nevada Children's Advocacy Center
Children's Advocacy Centers of Nevada
Crisis Support Services of Nevada — How to Report Abuse

Guests: Michelle Saldivar, outreach coordinator, Prevent Child Abuse Nevada; Nicholas Madsen, sergeant, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's Juvenile Sexual Assault Unit

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