AMARILLO, TX (KFDA) - An increase in teenage pregnancies may be a factor in the rise in child abuse cases in the Texas Panhandle, a number that's already seeing an increase from 2015.
One of the most common misconceptions surrounding child abuse is that it's only physical, but local experts say it's much more than that.
"Child abuse really encompasses a number of things and it can be everything from being verbally abusive to a child, to being physically abusive, to being emotionally abusive, as well as neglectful to a child," said Ruth Whitehead, a supervisor for the Nurse Family Partnership Program at Texas Tech University Health Science Center. "One thing is that exploiting a child can also be abusive, so it covers a really broad range of anything that can be injurious to a child both physically, mentally, emotionally, as well as environmentally."
The Texas Panhandle has higher child abuse rates than the state.
"We're really way ahead of what the state rate is last year  our rate per thousand kids was around 12.6 compared to the state rate of 9.1, so there is something going on here in the Panhandle of Texas that's causing more child abuse," said Don Nicholson, Steering Committee for the 16th Annual Child Abuse Prevention Conference.
Nicholson feels the increase in teenage pregnancy is part of that cause, especially in Potter County.
"We have babies having babies and those children are not prepared to become parents, they aren't because their parents weren't prepared to be parents or they wouldn't be a teen mom at this time," Nicholson said. "I'm not talking 18, 19 -- I'm talking 15, 16, and 14-years-old. Those are the areas that we probably look at the most in the difference between Potter and say Randall Counties."
While Whitehead agrees teen pregnancy is a factor contributing to an increase in abuse rates she feels not all teenagers and first time parents will be abusive.
"It's not a direct link," Whitehead said. "It doesn't mean that every teenager that gets pregnant is going be an abusive parent but we know that anytime any of us regarding of our age or experience, a first time pregnancy and maybe are surprised by that pregnancy that it's going to be very stressful to us and it's going to cause a major upheaval in our life."
Whitehead said teenage parents are more likely to be abusive because they have less experience and fewer resources available to them.
"Teen pregnancy, as a young parent you just generally have fewer resources and maybe perhaps you haven't developed all of the skills to be able to handle life stresses as well as sometimes it's hard to think about what today's action is going to do for the future," Whitehead said. "What today's action is going to do for the future, whether it's your own future or perhaps the future of the child that you're caring for and so life can get really challenging. So, that challenge is we need to be there to support young parents that are having babies for the first time."
Most of the child abuses cases taking place in the Panhandle do not involve strangers.
"We find that the overwhelming majority of abuse cases are people that the child knows that they've grown up with, they may be a significant other, relative, girlfriend, or boyfriend of the parent," Nicholson said. "So, it's not the 'stranger danger' that is causing a lot of our child abuse it's those people they know."
Experts believe the best way to curb child abuse is to inform the public about preventing child abuse and encouraging them to speak up when they see something is wrong.
"Be aware and report, even if you see something that's not quite right with a parent or an adult with a child or another child with a child then let somebody know about it," Nicholson said. "It's always better to be safe than sorry."