Matt Peiffer (left) poses next to State Representative Kevin Mahan (right) after advocating for a bill in memory of his sister Emily. Peiffer said his sister died by suicide at age 18 after struggling with feelings guilty about what had happened to her and her siblings. Photo: Matt Peiffer.
Indiana has the second-highest child abuse rates in the country.
She said she was 9 years old when her father began physically and verbally abusing her and her siblings.
Sara Zimmerman, freshman social studies education major, said it took two years to receive help.
“It was, ‘We’re sorry, but there’s nothing we can do because you guys didn’t take enough pictures.’ There wasn’t enough bruising,” she said. “There wasn’t enough evidence, in their opinion, to deem it as child abuse.”
During that time, Zimmerman said she felt “hopeless and afraid.”
“You’re living with someone and you don’t know what their next step will be or how it’s going to hurt you,” she said.
It wasn't until Zimmerman's mother divorced her father that the court granted her family a protection order against her father.
According to court documents, Zimmerman’s mother was granted full custody of her and her siblings and any visit from her father had to be monitored.
Zimmerman’s case of abuse is just one case reported in the state of Indiana. In 2017, a total of 29,198 victims of child abuse were documented, according to the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2017 Child Maltreatment report.
The report, which covers all child abuse incidents reported and investigated during the 2017 federal fiscal year, estimates there were 674,000 victims of child abuse and neglect across the country. The report also ranks Indiana the second-highest state in child abuse rates.
“I just think we can do more. I think a lot of it gets brushed under the rug,” Zimmerman said. “I think there can be reform to the CPS (Child Protective Services) system.”
Matt Moore, assistant professor of social work and director of the bachelors in social work program, however, said he sees child abuse statistics as “kind of a double-edged sword.”
Moore believes that with more cases being recognized and identified, more children may be receiving the services and help they need.
“While high numbers don’t look good on paper, high numbers in theory can mean that families are getting connected with the resources that will help them change their lives,” he said.
Most states recognize four types of abuse: neglect, physical abuse, psychological mistreatment and sexual abuse. Following the trend of prior years, the two highest forms of abuse that children suffered from were neglect (74.9 percent) and physical abuse (18.3 percent), the report states.
Matthew Peiffer, freshman social work major, said he experienced both.
Peiffer was adopted at the age of 3 and lived with his twin sister and younger sister in a mobile home in Indiana with their adoptive family for 13 years.
During that time, Peiffer said he was often locked in his room for hours at a time without access to a proper restroom. To relieve himself, Peiffer’s twin sister would attempt to unlock his bedroom door. When that failed, he said he would go to the bathroom down the vent in his room.
“They didn’t want to have us out in the public too much, so they would go to Amish places and buy oatmeal and stuff that hadn’t been processed,” Peiffer said. “So then the eggs would hatch and there would be bugs in our food.”
One day, during a trip into town, Peiffer’s twin sister ran to a nearby community school and asked for help. From there, Peiffer and his two sisters were removed from the home of their adoptive parents and placed in foster care.
On Jan. 1, 2002, Peiffer’s adoptive father was charged with four Class A felonies and five Class C felonies for child molestation, three of which were dismissed while he plead by agreement to the rest.
Peiffer said his younger sister, Emily Peiffer, struggled with feelings of guilt for what happened to her and her siblings. Then, in June 2016, she died unexpectedly at age 18, according to her obituary.
Matt Peiffer said she died by suicide.
“I was 19 years old and planning a funeral,” Peiffer said. “It was all a new experience for me.”
Since Peiffer’s experiences, he has become heavily involved with helping children who have experienced abuse as well as those in foster care.
Peiffer has become an active member of Indiana Connected by 25, an organization that helps Indiana children throughout their time in foster care, and has proposed a new bill in memory of his sister.
“The bill that I’m proposing is ‘My Adopted Parents Did All The Abuse,’ [which has the Department of Child Services (DCS)] check on kids that are adopted at ages 5, 10 and 15 just to hold [the adoptive parents] more accountable,” Peiffer said.
Peiffer has also worked with the Indiana DCS to continue efforts to decrease child abuse rates in the state and aid victims in recovery.
Noelle Russell, deputy director of communications for Indiana DCS, said, progress is being made regarding the issue of child abuse in Indiana.
“We are encouraged by the progress made to ensure all Indiana children have safe childhoods,” Russel said.