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Awareness + Intervention = Prevention

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Child Abuse in Central Texas

By MICHELLE CARTER

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and is dedicated to making people and communities aware of the hidden epidemic of child abuse and neglect. Every year more than 3 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States. In 2012, it was estimated that more than four children died every day as a result of child maltreatment. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the annual cost of child abuse and neglect in the United States is estimated at $124 billion.

Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across every cultural and ethnic line, in every religion and within all levels of education. Bottom line, it affects everyone. It affects the well-being of children and their future as adults.

Last year there were 65,000 confirmed victims of child abuse, and many of the incidents were sexual in nature. One With Courage, an awareness campaign sponsored by the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas, tells us that 1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused before her 18th birthday and 1 in 6 boys before the age of 18. These staggering numbers prove child abuse is occurring in epidemic proportions.

How does this affect Central Texas?

The Children’s Advocacy Center of Central Texas provides comprehensive services to children in Bell and Coryell counties. In 2013, 1,382 children in Central Texas were confirmed as victims of abuse and neglect and one child died. This equates to 3.8 children in our community being abused or neglected every day and puts 1,225 children in the care of the state, costing our community more than $6.6 million in foster care expenditures.

Prevention

Unfortunately, 2013 child abuse statistics were higher than the 2012 statistics. Does this tell us what we are doing is not working? In reality, it is hard to pinpoint exactly why these numbers are on the rise. Are more children being abused? Or are more cases being reported due to better awareness campaigns? Unfortunately, no one has the answer; however, we do know this epidemic is happening right here in our own backyard. As a community it is our duty to ensure children and their families get the intervention and help they desperately need.

Awareness is the key to intervention. Intervention is the key to prevention.

The effects of child abuse are daunting:

• One study states 80 percent of 21-year-olds who were abused as children met the criteria for at least one psychological disorder.

• Abused children are 25 percent more likely to experience teen pregnancy.

• Children who experience child abuse and neglect are nine times more likely to become involved in criminal activity.

• As many as two-thirds of the people in treatment for drug abuse reported being abused as children.

These children and their families need proper intervention at the onset of abuse and neglect. The only way to heal these small lives and to directly impact their well-being long term is to provide child-focused services that protect, promote healing, and enhance their quality of life. This is the mission of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Central Texas — to restore the lives of abused and neglected children in an effort to end the cycle of abuse one child at a time.

The Children’s Advocacy Center program in Belton is a nonprofit organization that has been established to offer hope and healing to abused children of all ages by simplifying the legal and social processes while focusing on the child victim and his or her family. The CAC program provides a safe and comfortable environment in which alleged victims and their families come for collaborative investigative services.

When children make outcries of abuse, they are thrown into a complicated system that is not always equipped to deal with their special needs. The CAC program is specifically designed to place children at ease in a neutral, child-friendly environment and bring together trained professionals from various disciplines. Trained forensic interviewers allow the child to share their personal experiences or events they have witnessed as law enforcement, children’s protective services, prosecution and mental health professionals view the interview in a separate room. A multidisciplinary team can respond to child abuse better through coordinated efforts. These same team members meet several times a month to staff cases and to share information to ensure the children are safe and protected.

It is imperative that proper intervention is provided to facilitate hope and healing for these young victims and their families. CAC family advocates work with these families beyond the investigation to ensure needs are met. In 2013, the Children’s Advocacy Center of Central Texas provided services to 428 children and their families and it expects higher numbers in 2014.

Another important factor in assisting children in the healing process from abuse is counseling intervention. As stated, children who have been abused are more likely to engage in criminal behavior, become pregnant as teens, or develop mental illness. Counseling helps lessen the likelihood of these society-taxing issues. Beyond the investigative process, the program offers trauma-focused counseling services and support groups for both parents and children at no charge.

The CAC believes one of the most important factors in preventing child abuse in the future is to ensure children and families have access to specialized services. Researchers have begun to explore factors that affect why some children have severe long-term consequences of abuse and others do not. The ability to cope, and even thrive, following abuse or trauma is often referred to as resiliency. A number of protective and promotion factors enhance a child’s ability to exhibit resiliency, including how the family responds as well as how the community responds. This supports the need for specialized services that help these children move past their trauma and get back to their childhoods, the happy and safe childhood they deserve.

There are two key components to the CAC model that are specifically designed to ensure these children’s needs are met to help move them to resiliency. First is a child-friendly environment in which trained interviewers talk to them about what has or has not happened. In the past children would be carted to various different social service and legal offices to re-tell their experiences. Reliving their accounts of abuse should preferably only happen once and be with someone trained to provide a sound forensic interview.

The second is trauma-informed counseling. Again, these children have special needs and services and programs designed to address and respond to the impact of traumatic events should be provided to them. The CAC offers both and is changing the lives of children in pain. Another important factor in child abuse and neglect prevention is to hold the responsible offenders accountable for the harm they have caused. Utilizing a multidisciplinary team approach improves the outcome of the cases and works better in protecting our community and children. Henry Garza, Bell County district attorney, said there is nothing more important to children who have been abused or sexually assaulted than to be treated with respect and kindness.

“Professionals at the Children’s Advocacy Center provide the essential service of discovering what happened to them, while at the same time minimizing further trauma to children,” he said. “I know of no higher calling than to help and protect children in a time of need and despair. This is what the Children’s Advocacy Center does every day.”

In closing, the CAC stresses: Awareness=Intervention=Prevention. No one can change what has happened to the 1,135 children who were confirmed victims of abuse; however, we can change what happens next. A community should stand together in the fight against child abuse and neglect, and report suspicions of abuse, make donations, attend child-abuse-awareness events, and volunteer to help restore the lives of abused and neglected children. All of these are important steps toward ending the cycle of abuse — one child at a time.

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