April is National Child Abuse Pre­vention Month — a time to acknowledge the impor­tance of fam­ilies and com­mu­nities working together to prevent child abuse and neglect. (Courtesy photo)

In honor of national child abuse pre­vention month,  the sheriff’s department and the Hillsdale branch of Child Abuse Pre­vention and Awareness held a rally at noon Wednesday on the cour­t­house lawn.

Sur­rounded by the blue pin­wheels that are the symbols of the movement, speakers from law enforcement, the prosecutor’s office, and around 20 com­munity members spoke about their attempts to erad­icate child abuse and give every young res­ident of Hillsdale County “the childhood we want everyone to have,” as CAPA exec­utive director Christie Campbell said.

Hillsdale County Sheriff Timothy Parker spoke about the warning signs and effects of child abuse and neglect.

“I spoke about the ways child abuse bleeds over into society and destroys fam­ilies, because children who are abused later abuse their children,” Parker said.

Parker and his fellow speakers — CAPA Board Pres­ident Megan Stiverson and assistant pros­e­cuting attorney Jamie Wis­niewski — dis­cussed the def­i­n­ition of child abuse and neglect, addressed its preva­lence in the com­munity, and con­sidered ways to combat it.

“There are 134 kids in our local foster care system,” Wis­niewski said. “The majority of them are there because of child abuse and neglect.”

Wis­niewski, who handles child abuse and neglect cases for Hillsdale County, said the number of inves­ti­ga­tions has increased in recent years. In 2017, 684 inves­ti­ga­tions were opened in three main areas: in the majority, sub­stance abuse was a major factor, fol­lowed by domestic abuse and child sexual abuse.

Hillsdale’s CAPA is one of 72 local councils that encourage com­mu­nities to par­tic­ipate in the nationwide child abuse awareness cam­paign. Local busi­nesses and orga­ni­za­tions put up blue lights — CAPA’s official color — during the month of April to show their support. “Pin­wheel gardens” also popped up on the cour­t­house lawn and at the sheriff’s office, the senior center, the state police office in Jonesville, and some local schools.

“Pin­wheels have been our national symbol since 2008,” Campbell said. “Research has shown that they catch people’s attention: they’re whim­sical and they remind people of their childhood.”

Pres­ident Ronald Reagan declared the national CAP month on April 4, 1983: “Child abuse and child neglect con­tinue to threaten the lives and health of over a million of our Nation’s children. Their physical suf­fering and emo­tional anguish chal­lenge us, as parents, neighbors, and cit­izens, to increase our attention to their pro­tection and intensify our efforts to prevent their mal­treatment.”

The “one million” estimate seems con­ser­v­ative in light of current numbers on child abuse at the national and state levels: In 2017, 90,760 com­plaints were inves­ti­gated in the state of Michigan, a number that increased from 70,784 in 2001 to hold steady from 2015 to the present around 90,000. In 2017, 26.017 of those cases were con­firmed.

Nationally, 676,000 children suf­fered abuse in 2016, according to sta­tistics from the Michigan Children’s Trust Fund. That year, 4.1 million referrals on behalf of 7.4 million children led to inves­ti­ga­tions num­bering approx­i­mately 3.5 million.

After CAP month was nationally rec­og­nized in 1985, state councils began orga­nizing rallies and drives, as well as pro­viding infor­mation and resources for local councils’ awareness cam­paigns that can be accessed on their website. The Lansing rally at 11 a.m. Wednesday included a pro­cession and pin­wheel planting event near the steps of the State Capitol.

State and local CAPA centers encourage com­munity members to make a dif­ference by fighting child abuse in three ways: men­torship, advo­cation for family-cen­tered policies, and donating vol­unteer hours or financial support to local orga­ni­za­tions that support children and fam­ilies.

“I encourage people to call the office if they’re inter­ested in helping out by vol­un­teering, and we’ll match them with the right program,” Campbell said.

The best way to prevent child abuse and neglect knowing how to detect it, Parker said. Warnings signs include changes in behavior and per­for­mance at school, excessive watch­fulness or edginess, extreme com­pliance and pas­sivity, evi­dence of with­drawal from social sit­u­a­tions, and con­stant presence at school early in the morning and late in the evening because the child fears going home.

On the parents’ side, red flags are lax super­vision, lack of concern for the child’s aca­demic progress or general well-being, denial of the child’s failures in school, encour­agement of harsh physical dis­ci­pline, or excessive depen­dence on the child for emo­tional support and attention.

But deciding when to get law enforcement involved can be dif­ficult: “Just because a child exhibits one of these signs, that isn’t doesn’t mean the cause is always abuse,” Parker said. “It’s an accu­mu­lation of more than one factor. If you see mul­tiple signs, then the call goes to 911 and they will send the appro­priate law enforcement official.”

In a county with increasing preva­lence of child abuse and neglect, Wis­niewski said she offered an appeal for foster parents; there are only 48 in the county.

In April and beyond, Campbell said, the best way to support those strug­gling with child abuse is to increase awareness through social media and vol­un­teering: “The biggest thing is to remember that you can make a dif­ference,” Campbell said. “We want people to speak up and speak out.”