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.”