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Silent Epidemic-News Herald

PANAMA CITY - On Sunday evenings, Lori Allen sits down to scan national news headlines, looking for any case involving serious child abuse or child homicide. Allen, executive director of the Gulf Coast Children's Advocacy Center, can usually guess the facts of a case just by reading the headline. On a child homicide, the perpetrator generally will be a non-related caregiver - typically a boyfriend. There's usually a history of maternal substance abuse, previous instances of domestic violence at the home and the child usually will be 2 years old or younger. Last year, the exact situation played out in Calhoun County, when 2-year old Anya Dziura was killed by her mother's boyfriend, Stephen Young. Young pleaded no contest to aggravated manslaughter of a child, while Jessica Dziura, the girl's mother, was given a six-year sentence for child neglect. Reports and substantiated instances of child abuse in Bay County have increased during the past several years. In the last six months of 2015, the Department of Children and Families received 1,345 reports of child maltreatment, including neglect, physical and sexual abuse. Of those claims, 151 were substantiated with a serious finding from DCF. In the first six months of this year, there already have been 1,566 calls, and 172 serious findings. Allen, whose organization sees referrals from the six-county area of Circuit 14, saw just more than 1,100 children in 2014. Last year, 1,325 children were referred to them, and this year, they're on pace to break 1,500 cases. But, Allen said, it's not just about the numbers. "People look at those statistics and they think, 'Wow that's really tragic,' " she said. "When you put a face and a name and an experience to that ... there are some schools that don't even have that many children enrolled."