Ongoing child abuse case highlights how to identify abuse

At the Lane Street Children's Center, preschoolers recite the words on the "My Promise" poster before starting class each day. (Genevieve Grippo/News 10)

The children at the Lane Street Children's Center were taking a nap when the school's Director, Kathy Crossman, walked over to sign in their portable classroom.

"Our kids start the day everyday by saying this promise," she said, pointing to the words on the poster. "'I will not use my hands or my words to hurt myself or others.'"

The mantra seemed particularly appropriate as 35-year-old Joshua Njaa sat inside of the Siskiyou County Jail, facing child abuse charges after his two-month-old twins were found to have major brain injuries. One infant also had a skull fracture. Both Njaa and the twins' mother, Stephanie Hayes, are scheduled for their pretrials on April 9.

Crossman has worked with children for 32 years. As such, her and her staff are mandated to report any signs of abuse to officials, but she said anyone can stand up and speak out about warning signs that could signal something is wrong.

For most people, there's just a sense that something's not right.

"Children who have unexplained bruises or injuries, who have recurrent minor injuries, children who are overly fearful or flinch... those are all warning signs," said Crossman.

Aside from physical indicators, Crossman noted other signs that sexual or emotional abuse could be taking place.

"Like being sexually precocious, having been exposed to pornography or inappropriate violence, or sexual situations," she said.

In a statement, the Fairchild Medical Center also outlined circumstances that can be "red flags" for child abuse-- something they too are required to report to officials.

"Some obvious signs you can see on the surface are: multiple bruises in different stages of healing, ocular injuries, bite marks, wounds on the scalp or circular burns that could be from a cigar or cigarette," the statement read. "Other signs can be picked up by X-Ray or CT scan, which can include head or abdominal trauma, damage of internal organs, and new or old bone fractures in various stages of healing."

The statement went on to say that more subtle signs of abuse can include chronic headaches, gastrointestinal complaints, anxiety, depression, dirty or inappropriate clothing for the weather, and poor personal hygiene.

At First 5 Siskiyou, and organization in northern California focused on promoting family health, the staff is working to prevent abuse before it happens.

"We are a county that has high substance abuse, high poverty, and high isolation," said Karen Pautz, Executive Director of First 5.

According to the First 5 2017-18 annual report, more than 33 percent of children under six years old lived in poverty in Siskiyou County. In 2015, there were 173 substantiated cases of abuse or neglect in the same area.

First 5 held hundreds of free classes last year, all centered on educating parents on things like cooking healthy meals, opening family communication at home, and reducing stress and anger.

According to Pautz, these are "evidence-based" classes - proven to help reduce neglect.

"If families ask for help in times of need, we see a significant reduction in child abuse and neglect," Pautz said.

But in cases where help doesn't come soon enough, both Pautz and Crossman believe it's a village mentality that keeps kids safe.

"Children cannot speak for themselves. They rely on us to protect them," said Crossman. "And if children are harmed, someone is not doing their job."

You can access a calendar of free classes offered by First 5 by clicking here.

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