By Outer Banks Voice on March 21, 2011
Blue pinwheel gardens and wooden silhouettes of children along the highway will signal the beginning of Child Abuse Prevention Month in Dare County.
The twofold message throughout April is aimed at raising awareness of local problems and promoting activities that help children become successful in all areas of their lives.
Sandy Brookshire, chairperson of the Dare County Child Abuse Task Force (CATF), reports that abuse against children is on the rise. There were 46 more reports in 2010 than in 2009 and 161 more children were involved in abuse and neglect cases.
“In Dare County, there were 87 investigations for serious neglect and abuse involving 199 children,” Brookshire said. “There were 220 assessments for neglect involving 391 children.”
The investigations and assessments are handled by the Department of Social Services (DSS). Brookshire is the Children’s Services supervisor for DSS. When cases reach the level of a criminal violation, law enforcement agencies are notified.
“We average one or two serious reports of physical and sexual abuse per month,” said Brookshire. “The majority of assessments cover improper care, improper discipline, improper supervision and injurious environment.”
To many residents, Dare County feels like a safe haven from troubles that make headlines in more urban communities. But the idyllic island lifestyle does not make Dare impervious to incidents of child abuse, any more than it makes the county’s residents immune to high unemployment, addiction problems or crime.
The extent to which child abuse affects victims into their adult years is becoming better understood. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes many psychological, behavioral and societal consequences of child abuse.
A 2008 finding showed that as many as 80 percent of young adults who had been abused met the diagnostic criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder at age 21.
Regarding behavioral consequences, the report found that abused and neglected children were 11 times more likely to be arrested for criminal behavior as a juvenile, and 2.7 times more likely to be arrested for violent and criminal behavior as an adult.
Societal ramifications of child abuse include a finding that abused and neglected children are at least 25 percent more likely to experience problems such as delinquency, teen pregnancy, low academic achievement and drug use.
Grim though the statistics seem, there is hope, and the second part of the Child Abuse Task Force educational effort is to bring that message to Dare residents.
“The pinwheels represent play, fun and all the positive activities parents and children can do together,” Brookshire said. “Anyone involved in children’s lives has the tools to provide a nurturing environment. Positive environments have been shown to reverse the negative impact of abuse.”
The goal is also to get people involved in taking an active role in preventing and reporting child abuse when it occurs. Reporting incidents of child abuse or neglect has been mandatory for all North Carolina residents for nearly 15 years. Brookshire acknowledges that there are still high societal hurdles to overcome in this area.
“People tend to want others to mind their own business, and that goes double for issues involving child rearing or discipline.”
Getting people past that obstacle involves introducing approaches that are minimally confrontational and that allow parents to maintain a measure of respect, particularly in a public setting. Strategies include recognizing a problem before it gets out of hand. For example, an escalating confrontation in a grocery store between a parent and child might be defused by an empathetic stranger with kindness.
“You could tell the aggravated parent, ‘Hey, I’ve been there. Kids can drive you crazy sometimes. Is there anything I can do to help?’ ” Brookshire said. “It doesn’t have to be an in-your-face approach. That’s usually counterproductive.”
The Child Abuse Task Force was created in 2005 and is made up of eight members representing an array of local agencies ranging from Interfaith Community Outreach and Social Services to law enforcement and Hotline.
J.C. Towler is a detective sergeant with Kill Devil Hills Police Department and a C.A.T.F. member.