BY HEATHER TOMLINSON, CJ Staff Writer Commonwealth Journal
It’s time to heed the call and commit to prevent child abuse.
Somerset on Wednesday hosted the statewide kick-off of Child Abuse Prevention Month and several local and state officials encouraged those in attendance to help stop child abuse before it even begins.
“This is a tremendous problem that should never exist,” said Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler during the welcoming portion of the kick-off. “The heartbeat of America is our children. ... We do set the example, and the kids will follow our example.
“Let’s take something away from this conference as adults, and that is to try to protect our heart, our children,” Girdler added.
This is the second year the Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky (PCAK) organization has held the kick-off outside of Frankfort. Wednesday’s event was held at Somerset Community College.
PCAK Executive Director Jill Seyfred said Somerset on Wednesday set the bar high for future kick-off events.
“The amount of effort and energy and time that everyone has put into the planning ... you all have just been tremendous,” Seyfred said, in recognizing the many local officials and citizens who worked to plan the event.
Pulaski District Judge Katie Wood gave a short lesson on the legalities of child abuse — which is categorized into dependency, abuse and neglect.
Wood said she and other judges have seen their fair share of abuse cases, even though they don’t all go to court. Wood said 956 abuse cases were reported to social services in 2012 in Pulaski County alone. Wood said that means 15 to 16 cases per social worker, per month. Wood also noted that each child in one family is not a separate case. Workers may be dealing with one case that may involve as many as five or six children in one family.
Wood said many child abuse reports come from schools, hospitals and other health care settings, and from authorities. Once a complaint is received by the state, it goes into centralized intake and is reviewed to determine whether the complaint meets criteria for an investigation. If the case does, it gets sent back to the county it was reported in, and an investigation is opened within a short period of time. Wood said extreme situations, like possible sexual abuse cases and cases during which a child is critically injured, begin within an hour.
Wood said it takes an effort by all involved — law enforcement, health care workers, and the courts — to move through an investigation. And that’s especially when emergency protection orders are involved. Wood said judges will take phone calls at all hours about emergency custody requests, and a short hearing is held to determine whether emergency custody is warranted.
Wood said children found to be in danger are removed from the home, preferably to a relative’s home, or to a foster care environment.
“We want them to go to somebody who is related and safe,” Wood said.
Wood said the end goal is always to unify the family. Although some situations may be so extreme it will never happen, Wood said plans are laid out, and perpetrators will undergo counseling and therapy in hopes of a family reunion.
“The underlying goal is always to unify (the family),” Wood said.
Wood said the most important part of preventing child abuse is always reporting a possible child abuse case — and she said child abuse isn’t just physical.
“Child abuse takes many, many, many different forms,” said Wood. “It comes in many different colors.”
Abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual or environmental.
Wood said there have been times when abuse has been revealed as the underlying cause of a problem such as truancy (missing too many school days) or behavior issues.
Wood pointed out a well-known state law that requires reporting of any possible child abuse by health care workers, teachers, and authorities. But she said another part of that state statute also calls on every person — not just health care workers, teachers and police officers — to report possible abuse.
“All of us have a gut,” said Wood. “All of us know when something’s not right. ... Don’t turn away. Look and see what’s going on. See if this child is in an appropriate environment.
“It is unbelievable how many inappropriate environments there are in Pulaski County,” Wood added.
Wood said being alert, and being confident enough to speak up, may help save a child’s life.
“We’re going to have to be more confident in speaking out,” Wood said. “If we can just tune in then we may be that one chance at hope for that one child.” Katie.
Colmon Elridge, representing Beshears’ office, presented the proclamation Wednesday declaring April as Child Abuse Prevention Month in Kentucky.
“The commitment is to not only prevent child abuse by speaking up and by doing things that (Wood) talked about, but by creating safe environments,” said Elridge. “It’s about creating that network so they know they are not alone.
“Creating that network, that safety net is vital to ensuring that we maintain safe communities,” Elridge added.
The event also included presentation of certificates to local school students who participated in the Forcht Bank Art Contest. The students drew pictures expressing messages about preventing child abuse.
Meece Middle School student Brian Hines won the contest, and his art work will be featured on a T-shirt. Hines, 11, also received a plaque and a gift basket.
Hines was encouraged to enter the contest by his mother, Lisa Hines, who teaches art at Hopkins Elementary School.
Those students who received honorable mentions for their entries were Najla Amarkhail, 10, Katie Brinson, 9, Hailey Halloran, 10, Andrew Holland, 11, Gracey Kelley, 9, Max Morris, 10, Joshua Stein, 10, Annalise Scott, 11, and Jalyn Murphy, 9.
“Let’s commit,” said Elridge. “You’re here, but it’s not enough to just be here.
“Let’s all be leaders,” Elridge continued. “Let’s all take that mantle of responsibility and lead with the excitement that we feel today.”