Programs bring ‘invisible’ signs of child abuse to forefront

Published April 2, 2014 in the Ocala Star Banner.

By April Warren

A warm breeze swept across the grassy field outside West Marion Community Hospital on Tuesday afternoon, curling underneath the reflective petals of dozens of pinwheels and turning the green patch into a blur of blue shimmer.

“We can feel the wind but we just can’t see it, and I think oftentimes that’s what we do as a community with the signs of abuse — the signs of neglect are all about us but sometimes they are invisible,” said James Grant, a supervisor at The Centers, who spoke during a ceremony to raise awareness about National Child Abuse Prevention month.

Several local events are planned throughout the month to bring awareness to the topic.

On Monday most of the pinwheels were planted on the grassy lawn in the shape of a pinwheel head. On Tuesday about two dozen attendees planted larger pinwheels in a linear row, forming the stem.

While pink ribbons stand for breast cancer and red ribbons stand for AIDS, blue ribbons stand for child abuse, according to Debra Wise, deputy chief of program operations for the local nonprofit Kids Central Inc.

The pinwheels stand for a slightly different statement — prevention — and bring together two messages.

“One, we want to remember those kids that have been abused and neglected in our community, but we also want to prevent kids in our community from being abused and neglected, and that’s what those pinwheels are symbolic of, a kid’s free childhood,” Wise said.

Kids Central Inc. is a nonprofit organization that develops and manages a system of care for abused, neglected and abandoned children and their families for five surrounding counties.

Wise said 330 to 450 calls are placed monthly from Marion County to the abuse hotline.

“That’s a lot of calls on the hotline,” she said.

In 2013, more than 4,000 children were victims of child neglect, abandonment or abuse in the 5th Circuit, which is composed of Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Sumter and Marion counties. That same year, Marion County had the highest number of investigated reports in the circuit, with 4,441 reports of child abuse, which involved 7,375 children. Of those reports, 934 were confirmed.

“The numbers are kind of hard to utilize and show the true need and reach,” said Nicole Pulcini Mason, director of community affairs for Kid Central Inc. “But it’s basically what we have at this point.”

According to Mason, when a report is investigated, there are three levels of maltreatment into which the complaint can be categorized. The first level means nothing was found, the second is unsubstantiated, meaning some possible aspects of child abuse were found, and the third means child abuse occurred.

According to Mason, many of the second-level claims are treated with prevention and diversion opportunities and therefore are not included in the end number of verified claims.

“I think we’re catching more on the front end rather than treating it on the back end,” Mason said.

According to Wise, when she first started in 2006 there were more than 5,000 children under the supervision of the 5th Circuit court system due to abuse, neglect or abandonment. Today, that number is down to about 1,700.

“Which is a huge reduction in numbers of children that are in the child welfare system,” Wise said. “But that’s because we have prevention programing, and prevention programing throughout our five counties is essential, it’s necessary, and because of that, over the last several years, we’ve been able to serve over 13,000 children in prevention programs.”

But, the calls are still coming in.

Mason hesitates to say child abuse is increasing, explaining that the complexities of abuse are increasing, aided by co-occuring factors and family issues, but will say child neglect is on the rise.

“There’s such a huge spectrum of child abuse and neglect the number overall is definitely going up, but we are serving them earlier,” she said.

One statistic that is high in Marion County hits very close to home.

“We have a lot of domestic violence in Marion County and even though the children, they are not necessarily being hit, that’s happening in front of them, which is a form of neglect,” Mason said.

Out of the 5th Circuit, Marion County has the highest number of children who experience physical injury — 91 in 2013 — and the highest number of children who experienced abuse due to family violence — 344 in the same time frame.

This weekend, two separate events will keep the month’s theme in the spotlight.

On Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Belleview Masonic Lodge 95 will hold its 10th annual Free Child ID Program at 5871 SE Baseline Road. Parents can bring a child to the event and leave with a packet to give law enforcement in case the child ever goes missing or is abducted.

“It’s a safety feature, and it’s free, so it’s a benefit to parents,” said John Pisani, vice chairman and founder of the program.

Data burned to a CD at the event will include the child’s height, weight, hair and eye color, birth date, age, fingerprints, photos and video, and audio. All the information is given to the parents; the lodge does not keep any record.

Then, if a child is missing, the parents can give the disc to law enforcement officials, who can broadcast the information statewide, effectively triggering an Amber Alert, according to Pisani.

The Belleview program has provided 1,700 packets since it began 10 years ago and creates an average of 200 to 300 ID packets annually.

“This is a program that really everyone is interested in. We believe we’ve saved a few children and, hopefully, it acts as a deterrent,” Pisani said.

The Grand Lodge of Florida believes Belleview’s program is the most successful in Florida, according to Pisani.

On Sunday, sneakers will thud across many of Ocala’s roadways as Lauren Book strides into town during her fifth annual “Walk in My Shoes” journey across the state.

During her childhood, Book was sexually abused for six years by her nanny. She walks annually to bring awareness to child sexual abuse and advocate for prevention and legislative change.

April also is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. There are 42 million survivors of child sexual abuse in the U.S., according to Lauren’s Kids, which is Book’s organization.

One in three girls and one in three boys are sexually assaulted by the age of 18, according to the organization.

Book started her trek this year in mid-March in Key West and is expected to walk 1,500 miles over 42 days, ending in Tallahassee at the end of April.

Her walk Sunday will begin at 9:15 a.m. and go from the Ocala Hilton to Kimberly’s Center for Child Protection, where walkers will pause for a pit stop. At 1:15 p.m., they will walk to the downtown square for a rally at 2:30 p.m.

Contact April Warren at 867-4065 or Follow her on Twitter @ajtwarren.