April may signal spring, Easter bunnies and the beginning of Florida’s hot season, but there’s something far more serious we should all think about this month: Child Abuse Prevention. April is National Child Abuse Prevention month, and for local leaders who have devoted their career to taking care of our most vulnerable, this is an issue that cannot be highlighted enough.
“Everyone has an obligation to make sure children are safe,” says Kelley Parris, executive director of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County. “The issue of keeping children safe is everybody’s—parents, grandparents, teachers, preachers, neighbors, business people. A healthy community is healthy children. The community needs to operate as a unit and be involved.”
According to the 2015 study from the Administration for Children and Families Children’s Bureau, Child Protection Service agencies across America received about 4 million referrals involving about 7.2 million children during Fiscal Year 2015.
These are just the ones we know about; a majority of cases are not even known by the system, says Parris. Children suffer not just from direct abuse and neglect, but also by being a witness or being exposed to abuse in the home of another family member—a broad category often referred to as household dysfunction that can include factors such as an incarcerated relative or living in a home where someone suffers from mental illness or a mother is treated violently. Such exposure can cause psychological damage to a child’s health and social and emotional well-being. This in turn affects their ability to learn and carry on a productive life.
Parris explains that the Children’s Board’s goal is to strategically stay the course for child safety, to which end it supports local nonprofits that help make sure children are safe, healthy and developmentally on track. Just in the 2016 fiscal year, the organization invested $29.9 million in more than 90 local nonprofits.
That multipronged approach is one that every community member can take to improve children’s welfare in general, Parris says. For example, the business owner who displays a crib can ensure that she doesn’t fill it with stuffed animals because those are unsafe for babies to sleep with. It’s a tiny action with big repercussions. A priest can step out of his comfort zone in a conference with a family or even address the topic of child abuse in a sermon.
“Have a community discussion about it: What have you done today to keep a child safe?” says Parris. Ordinary people can address the issue in church, on blogs and in social groups. Everyone has skin in the game, she says, because healthy children in healthy families lead to healthy communities. “Ordinary people can do really great things every day,” says Parris.
Most importantly, pay attention. If you encounter a potentially disturbing family situation and if something feels odd, it probably is odd, says Parris. “Children tell the truth,” she says. “Always follow your gut instinct.”
Anyone who becomes aware of a situation in which a child is in harm can anonymously report it to the Florida Child Abuse hotline at (800) 962-2873.
“We have to move beyond awareness to action,” says Parris. “Children are our most precious resource of all.” If you know of a situation but are hesitant to take action, Parris says to ask yourself: Could you sleep at night if something happened to that child? “If you don’t even confront it, that child will remain in the shadows forever.”
- Who’s reporting child abuse? Three fifths of reports come from professionals, or those who learned about these children through their work. This group mostly consists of teachers, police officers and social services staff. A remaining 1/5 reports came in from friends, neighbors and relatives and another 1/5 is from unclassified or anonymous sources.
- The youngest are the most at risk. Children in their first year of life suffered the highest rate of victimization compared to their counterparts in the community at about 24 per 1,000.
- About ¾ of the children suffered from neglect while about 17 percent were abused.
- More than 1,600 children died as a result of abuse and neglect; nearly ¾ of this number was under 3 years old.
- Four fifths of child fatalities involved at least one parent.
- More than 17 percent of perpetrators maltreated three or more victims.
From the Florida Department of Children and Families:
The Florida Abuse Hotline accepts reports 24 hours a day and 7 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. There are four ways to make a report:
- Online at https://reportabuse.dcf.state.fl.us/
- By calling 800-962-2873
- Florida Relay 711 or TTY 800-453-5145
- By faxing your report to 800-914-0004
If the child you are worried about is in immediate danger, call 911.