Statistics show that cases of reported child abuse were up for the first eight months of 2008 compared to the same time period last year, according to Sheriff's Lt. John Chess, with the sheriff's Special Victims Unit.
In fact the numbers show child abuse cases rose over the last eight years.
From January through August 2008, there were a total of 1,115 cases of child abuse reported to the Department of Children and Families hotline in Highlands County.
The sheriff's office handled 763 of those and the others were referred to law enforcement in the appropriate municipalities.
However, from January through August of 2007, there were only 835 cases reported countywide. The sheriff's office handled 558.
In 2007 there were 1,334 child abuse cases reported in the entire county for the year. The sheriff's office handled 910 of those cases last year.
"This does not include cases the hotline does not accept," said Chess.
Cases such as child-on-child-type abuse or where a neighbor down the street is involved, may be switched to other appropriate agencies.
"So we work more cases than the ones I gave you," he said.
In the year 2000, the sheriff's office handled 668 child abuse cases and 781 cases in 2005, according to Sharon Burch, the sheriff's office statistician.
The victims unit deals with basically three different types of child abuse in children, newborn up to 18, Chess said.
The first type is sexual abuse, where the child is the victim of a sexual assault or battery; physical or mental, where a child is physically abused or where mistreatment can harm a child's mental state; and neglect of a child where a child is not properly fed, housed, clothed or otherwise provided for.
Also considered neglect is when a child is placed in a situation where the child could be endangered, such as driving while intoxicated or having them stay in a home with a methamphetamine lab or where certain drugs are accessible.
A more unusual example of child abuse was reported about 3:38 p.m. Tuesday, when Sebring police said they were called to the Sweetbay Supermarket, at 3250 U.S. 27 S., answering a complaint about an intoxicated person.
The reporting person told police Officer Sean Bueford that a woman, later identified as Mary Cranfield Lyons, 33, was in the store with five children (ages 11, 8, 5, 1, and a 1-month-old). She reportedly asked if she could have some items for free and was denied.
She walked around the store and opened some containers, the witness told police, and later put them back, the arrest report stated.
Bueford reported Lyons was swaying as she stood and that her speech was slurred and appeared to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. She told Bueford that she had driven to the store with the children, the report stated.
After getting Lyons' permission to search her purse for weapons or illegal substances, Bueford reported that he found a yellow pill bottle and found nine pills that Poison Control identified over the radio to be methadone by the numbers on the pills. She told Bueford she did not have a prescription, the report stated.
Lyons was charged with cruelty toward a child by an act that could have resulted in physical or mental injury and possession of a controlled substance (methadone) without a prescription. She remained in Highlands County Jail in lieu of $55,000 bond on Thursday.
It was not clear from the report what, if anything, Lyons may have consumed.
There are other types of abuse the Special Victims Unit deals with.
The unit also deals with elder abuse, ages 65 and older as well as adults who are physically handicapped that meet certain criteria or those who are mentally challenged.
Most cases of child abuse are called in by other family members, neighbors, teachers, or daycare workers, said Chess.
"It's a rare case when the child calls," he added.
"Most of the cases we are getting are children who are not from married families," said Chess. "Most cases are with unmarried couples, with someone who is not related to the children. One thing we are having a lot of is when mom and dad are angry and the kid calls 911. We respond if one goes to jail for domestic violence."
"We also get calls where a spouse reports abuse during custody issues," he said. "We have a number who do that."
The unit is staffed with one secretary, two full-time victim advocates, one part-time victim advocate, three detectives, one deputy and Lt. Chess.
"We're pretty steady but, because of the increase in load, I'd like to see this unit expand," Chess said.