A pinwheel. It is a symbol of childhood whimsy, spinning in the breeze as the sun reflects off of its silvery petals.
But every April, the pinwheel becomes a somber reminder of a child’s lost innocence. To commemorate National Child Abuse Prevention Month, a garden of pinwheels is planted on the front lawn of North Florida Regional Medical Center—one pinwheel for each of the nearly 2,000 children in Alachua County who are confirmed as victims of child abuse each year.
The fight to protect children from abuse is a collaborative effort from many area organizations. With the sensitive nature of the crime and the tender ages of its victims, experts are needed from the Department of Children and Families, law enforcement, foster care agencies, counselors, the state attorney’s office and the Guardian ad Litem program.
The Child Advocacy Center (CAC) of Gainesville plays a crucial role in coordinating these efforts, while providing a safe place for abused and neglected children to find support and counseling.
“We provide a multi-disciplinary team approach to child abuse,” said Sherry Kitchens, the organization’s president and CEO. “There are a lot of people involved in children’s lives when there has been an abuse case. We bond them together in a protective manner and make sure those folks are all connected with each other, with the child at the center of everyone’s minds and hearts as they’re working the case.”
One such organization is Guardian ad Litem, a program that focuses on the being of children in the dependency court system. Volunteers visit children regularly to ensure that their medical, educational and emotional needs are being met. They also check in with parents to monitor their progress with case plans and doing what they need to reunite their families. This is because in most local cases, child abuse stems from neglect due to parental substance abuse or from domestic violence situations.
Guardian ad Litem services are a crucial path to security for abused children who have suffered through unimaginable trauma.
“The majority of these children are under 5 years old,” said Paul Crawford, circuit director for the Eighth Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem program. “Without Guardian ad Litem services, therapy or counseling that the child needs might not be recommended. And a lot of times there are issues we can bring to the court’s attention, such as sibling visits if they’re separated from siblings or recommended changes in visitation.”
A variety of activities and programs can be found in Gainesville during National Child Abuse Prevention Month. The pinwheels – provided by the Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida, a group devoted to children in poverty – are the most prominent hallmark of this important month. Kitchens and her associates also hold speaking engagements geared toward such groups as foster parents, child care professionals and grandparents learning to raise grandchildren with modern methods.
Additionally, the Celebrate the Child festival is held every April by the Early Learning Coalition and the Alachua County Library District. Scheduled this year for April 20 from 10 am until noon at the downtown library headquarters, the event brings in organizations like the CAC, Peaceful Paths and UF’s Child Abuse Prevention Project to educate families about child welfare. Each group stages an activity for children to help them learn about safety and protection. Caregivers have the opportunity to sign children up for Volunteer Pre-K programs and learn more about the groups in attendance. Bounce houses and healthy snacks provide additional entertainment for children.
Margot Wilder, the CAC’s director of development, said that with both the annual festivals and the year-round efforts, local advocacy groups would be lost without the help they receive from the Gainesville community.
“Both hospitals (North Florida Regional Medical Center and Shands) are extremely supportive of the efforts during Child Abuse Prevention Month. O2B Kids does two benefits for us each year, and HOME magazine is a big supporter of all issues with children,” she said, citing just a few of many community partners of the CAC. “Daycare centers, school teachers, counselors, pediatricians, dentists, orthodontists are all extremely supportive. It really helps raise awareness on just how big an issue it is in our community.”
Through the many area programs dedicated to the support and healing of abused adolescents, the hope is that teaching children now will prevent more children in the future from facing the same hardships.
“I really feel like you learn how to be parent at a very young age from how you’re treated and what you see,” Kitchens said. “There are caregivers who don’t value gentleness or compassion. We’re talking about breaking that cycle of abuse for the kids.”
(Sidebar) How Do You Know?
It is often difficult to determine the difference between typical childhood mood swings and true signs of abuse. “Children are oftentimes afraid to tell that they were uncomfortable or that something happened,” Kitchens said. “They will also protect adults in their lives, even their parents, from pain or from being upset.”
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the following signals can be a result of child abuse when they appear repeatedly or in combination:
- Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance
- Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents’ attention
- Has learning problems (or difficulty concentrating) that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes
- Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
- Lacks adult supervision
- Is overly compliant, passive or withdrawn
- Comes to school or other activities early, stays late and does not want to go home
In many cases, the best way to learning more about the situation is to have a normal conversation with the child. “If you have children in your life and you notice something is different, just talk to them,” Kitchens said. “You don’t have to ask them straight out in those words, necessarily. But let them know that you care about them.”
It is important to note that according to legislation passed last fall in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky case, everyone in the state of Florida is a mandated reporter. Failure to report known abuse to the Department of Children and Families is now a third-degree felony (upgraded from a first-degree misdemeanor).
If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call the Abuse Hotline at 1 (800) 96-ABUSE.