A prevalence of child maltreatment combined with good reporting and investigative practices contributes to a high percentage and rate of true reports in the region, officials say.

The roughly 947 child maltreatment reports found to be true after investigation in Area 2 under the Arkansas Department of Human Services, which consists of Sebastian, Crawford, Franklin, Logan, Scott, Johnson and Yell lcounties, comprised 28 percent of all such investigations received by DHS in 2016, the latest available year for data. That number leads Arkansas, which saw roughly 7,269 of its 30,298 child maltreatment investigations found true, by 4 percent.

If averaged against the respective areas' populations, the rate of true child maltreatment investigations in the seven-county area was 35 percent higher than that of the state in that period of time.

"That number is a good representation" of the situation in the area, Area 2 Director Melanie Cleveland said.

Child maltreatment encompasses physical, sexual and psychological abuse as well as neglect of children. From March 2017 to February 2018, officials with Sebastian County DHS investigated 1,447 child maltreatment reports.

Cleveland estimated roughly 33 percent of reports accepted for investigation are found true. Of the reports found true, "90 percent" are directly tied back to drug abuse, which are largely methamphetamine and prescription opioids, she said.

"(This) leads to a plethora of abuse to children and things they are exposed to by their caregivers," she said of drug abuse and poverty.

Hamilton House Director Jackie Hamilton, who works with DHS and law enforcement officials to investigate child maltreatment cases in Sebastian, Crawford, Franklin, Logan and Johnson counties, said Sebastian and Crawford counties are where most of her reports come from. Hamilton House forensic interviewers assisted in investigations for 759 children from the five counties — primarily stemming from suspected sexual abuse — in 2017.

Hamilton estimates only "one in 10 children" who are maltreated in their lifetimes tell authorities.

"There is nine times that out here that we don't know about," Hamilton said. She added that most of the children who do come forward about their maltreatment do so accidentally.

"Certainly, there are a number of children who are exposed to abuse and neglect that are silent, and their voices are not heard," Cleveland said.

On the flip side, Hamilton also said the high rate of true child maltreatment investigations in the seven-county area is not necessarily a bad thing.

"Where you may see that as, ‘This is terrible,’ I see that as great, because if it’s out there, we want it reported and we want good investigators to find it to be true when it actually is true," she said. "I see that as a positive.”

Hamilton said the rate of true child maltreatment investigations in the area is also a direct result of a public that is aware of the problem. She said officials at Hamilton House and other organizations that advocate for children "do a lot of public awareness of the situation and the cause."

Hamilton also said the law enforcement and DHS officials in the Fort Smith region are second to none when it comes to investigating child maltreatment.

“I am frequently in Little Rock, and I rub elbows with other people — other DHS officials in different counties. I think they all do a better job than their reputation says they do, but I know personally that the ones here and law enforcement here are the best in the state," she said.

In the long run, Hamilton said she would like to see true child maltreatment investigations go down as a direct result of less child maltreatment in the area. However, if the prevalence of child maltreatment in the area stays the same, she would like to see number and frequency of true investigations stay the same, if not increase.

“You always have to look at why," Hamilton said. "If we have good reports because we have better awareness here and this is actually something that’s being helpful to children, that’s great. But if they go down, you have to look at the cause. Is this because people no longer think that this is happening and they don’t look for it, and if they see it, they don’t report it?"

If the prevalence of child maltreatment remains the same or increases, Cleveland said she would like to see the reports continue to come in as well.

“Every citizen is a mandated reporter if he or she believes or suspects child abuse and neglect," Cleveland said. "The only way we can stop this cycle is by giving our services that we have for counseling and so forth to the children and to families in order to get to the core issue that led to abuse and neglect.”