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April 1, 2021
We’ve heard it time and time again…it takes a village to raise a child. It’s true. And just like in any village, troubles can arise. That’s when we band together as a community to help lift those who need it, especially our children. Sometimes this means doing things that aren’t so comfortable, like reporting suspected abuse or neglect, even if that suspected abuse is being committed by somebody we may know or even love.
In April, our nation recognizes Child Abuse Prevention Month to help raise awareness about reporting abuse and joining together to ensure we have programs and strategies in place to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place. The theme for this year’s month-long recognition is Thriving Children and Families: Prevention with Purpose.
One key community player in this effort is the Honorable Katherine G Essrig—who from her bench in the 13thJudicial Circuit’s family dependency and child welfare court and her volunteer roles in the community, is helping to advocate as a voice for the voiceless. We sat down with her for a Zoom conversation to learn more about how the community—our village—can come together to support and protect children.
TBP: You become aware early on that as a judge, you have a platform beyond your role as a judge in the courtroom, a role when you convene different groups, particularly groups with different ideas and approaches.
JE: I became aware early on that you do have a voice and that you do need to recognize that and decide when you want to use it forcefully and when not. I learned how much I liked dealing with families and trying to help families—in particular, children—and how to have all of those things coalesce such that hopefully on some days and some ways I’m able to make a difference and we’re able to make things better.
TBP: The blue pinwheel is a symbol of the movement that every child deserves a great childhood. Let’s talk about that.
JE: The pinwheels remind us that we need to support families. We need to be aware of and do what we can to acknowledge that there is child abuse in our community and be sure to recognize our role. Not everyone knows this, but every community member is a mandatory reporter—which means if you suspect child abuse, you are required by law to report it. Certain people are required additionally—like teachers, physicians, social workers, daycare workers, law enforcement officers.
TBP: Do you have to know for certain something is going on?
Judge Essrig: You don’t have to know for certain that something terrible has gone on. If you happen to notice the child next door or down the street all of a sudden has injuries that don’t seem to be easily explained…they’re cowering when they’re around a particular parent … we all have that gut check. If something doesn’t seem right and you feel like that child maybe is at risk for being abused, you can report it. It’s anonymous, so nobody is going to know who reported it and second of all, you don’t have to be certain. As long as you explain, ‘well here’s what I observed’ or ‘here’s why I believe this’ or ‘here is what my daughter observed.’ They will ask you a series of questions. They have a form. The burden is not on you to make that determination. You are just the one who is passing along the information you have.
The Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-96 ABUSE (22873), has not only saved the lives of children, but families too?
JE: I have to tell you, after having worked in this field for a long time, I see a lot of parents, legal guardians and caregivers whose lives have been transformed by this process too. They don’t necessarily relish the intrusion in their lives initially, but a lot of times, these are parents and caregivers who themselves often had trauma in their history. We now know so much more than we used to know about the role of trauma. We don’t just say go to some class, go get yourself a solution to the problem; we really delve into the specifics of a parent’s case plan or a parent’s issues.
TBP: This is not how it was always done when it comes to child welfare?
Judge Essrig: The reality is we looked upon certain parents as bad people… it’s not the way to do things and now we know that. That’s not to say everybody is treated perfectly by our system today because they’re not, but we understand far better today than we did then.
We have to look at them as people and understand that often times, they’re not bad people. They may have done something that … might have been a criminal act, might have been an abusive act… but let’s look at their history, let’s look at how they were raised as children, let’s look at the trauma they had in their lives and let’s try to provide them with some healing and some services that will guide them.
It’s not just a question of whisking that child away from this abusive environment and helping the child, it’s a question of wrapping the services around the entire family to the extent we can. Don’t get me wrong, there are those horrific cases, and we can conjure up the images of that we know from the past, but for the vast majority of our parents, we recognize we need to help them as well, we need to help them be better parents, give them the skills they need to not engage in those types of behaviors.
Most of what we see—and I don’t mean to minimize if a child has been harmed in any way—but a vast majority of what we see is the result of a parent or legal guardian or custodial guardian having substance abuse and/or mental health problems.
TBP: By healing the entire family unit, you are essentially working to break the cycle of abuse?
JE: I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve seen that started out angry at me, angry at the system—angry and maybe feeling completely forlorn and without hope—who have persevered because one thing I’ve learned …I don’t have a magic cure-all of society’s ills, but I can tell you the greatest motivator I’ve ever seen is the potential loss of or the potential reunification with one’s child.
You can take away your home, you can take away your worldly possessions, you can even take away one’s spouse or significant other and all of that has a huge impact, but nothing, nothing has the same impact as removing one’s child, knowing one’s child might be removed or knowing you have a chance to get back with your child.
TBP: You’ve mentioned that some of the families who come into your courtroom never experienced parental love or caring in their own lives.
JE: It’s such an important part of you growing up to be a resilient and self-sufficient person and a lot of parents in our system didn’t have that. If you can give them that feeling of support and wholeness, you can really transform them and the whole trajectory of their life and their family’s lives.
TBP: Do you think there is sometimes a reluctance to report suspected abuse out of fear they’ll break up a family?
JE: Often times, people are a little reluctant to report it when it’s somebody close to them, when it’s a friend or neighbor or family member for fear of disrupting a family or have a child displaced or causing friction. You are there to heal and to help and ultimately if there is something, if there is abuse occurring, that it will ultimately end in the child’s benefit.
TBP: What else can we do as community members to help break the cycle of abuse and neglect?
JE: Part of it is just awareness. If you want to be more than aware, you can become a guardian ad litem, you can volunteer, you can be a mentor, you can be a tutor, you volunteer at one of our neighborhood resource centers. Start with our Children’s Board. Call them and say I just really want to help. Most of our community members have no idea [about] the vast array of programs and services that exist. People in need aren’t always aware of them and people who want to volunteer to help aren’t always aware of them.
Learn more about the services provided by the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County and find a Community Resource Center near you: ChildrensBoard.org or (813) 229-2884