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Palm Beach County nonprofit reports 'massive' uptick in child abuse, neglect allegations

Joseph Toste says he's reporting about 3 cases involving high school students a week to Department of Children and Families
Posted at 10:08 PM, Jul 28, 2023

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Behavioral health experts are sharing their findings concerning children in local schools.

The nonprofit Genesis Community Health in Boca Raton said staff has noticed a "massive" uptick of students reporting allegations of abuse and neglect.

Joseph Toste, a licensed clinical social worker and the director of behavioral health with Genesis Boca Raton, described the allegations that five Palm Beach Central High School employees failed to report child abuse as "disheartening and irresponsible."

The staffers who were arrested have posted bail and been released from the Palm Beach County Jail.

"It is abhorrent that school officials have allegedly failed to report allegations of sexual assault, self-harm, and suicidal ideation to the Florida Department of Children and Families and law enforcement," Toste said. "In today's youth mental health crisis, our children need competent and dedicated on-campus professionals to steadfastly report any and all allegations of abuse, neglect, and abandonment to the authorities in a timely manner in order to protect our most innocent."

Joseph Toste discusses the surge in cases being reported concerning child abuse.
Joseph Toste discusses the surge in cases being reported concerning child abuse.

According to Toste, one out of three girls and one out of eight boys have been sexually abused.

"One of my biggest fears again is that students that hear about this tragic situation at Palm Beach Central will stop them from getting the help that they need," Toste said. "It takes time to open up to something so incredibly sensitive."

Toste said, on average, he reports three cases involving high school students a week to the Department of Children and Families. He said after investigating that about 45% turn out to be confirmed cases of abuse.

"My job as a social worker is not to investigate to see whether or not they're telling the truth or not," Toste said. "My job is to report the allegations and let law enforcement professionals do their job."

Palm Beach Central High School in Wellington on July 24, 2023.jpg

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He also stated that students have confessed to him about being the ones who have committed sexual assault.

"From the students I have worked with who are the alleged perpetrators, they usually want to get it off their chest. They've been holding onto this for so long," Toste said. "Usually when they admit that they were sexually abused when they were younger and they, in turn, have acted out with other children."

Toste said the uptick in reports of assault is partly due to the fact more students feel empowered to report it.

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He found on average most sexual assaults happen in the child's home, but he's also seeing a rise in sexual exploitation cases through social media.

"We always tell students and the community at large that there's no excuse for sexual violence," Toste said. "Sexual abuse is sexual abuse regardless of who the players are, so we take every allegation seriously."

The Florida Department of Children's and Families abuse hotline is 1-800-962-2873.

The Florida Abuse Hotline accepts reports 24 hours a day and seven days a week of known or suspected child abuse, neglect or abandonment and reports of known or suspected abuse, neglect, or exploitation of a vulnerable adult.