Summit groups hope to raise awareness for child abuse prevention month in April
April is national child abuse prevention month, and organizations around the country are looking for ways to raise awareness on issues surrounding young victims of abuse, neglect and sexual assault.
As the issue gains a national spotlight next month, groups within Summit County are looking to join the fight. In April, organizations like the TreeTop Child Advocacy Center and CASA of the Continental Divide will be looking to start an uncomfortable but crucial conversation about child abuse in the area.
“I think it’s important to let people know we’re all responsible for this, and we all play a role in preventing child abuse and neglect,” said Krista Burdick, executive director of the TreeTop Child Advocacy Center in Breckenridge, a nonprofit dedicated to providing a safe environment for children who have faced abuse or witnessed traumatic crimes. “It’s our responsibility to know what abuse looks like. That’s the first step in establishing our prevention program. We all have a responsibility to the children in our community to protect them and keep them safe.”
While not often discussed, child sex abuse is a major problem around the country. According to data from Darkness to Light, a South Carolina-based national nonprofit that tracks child sex abuse statistics using dozens of sources, about 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday — about 1 in seven girls, and 1 in 25 boys. Nearly 70 percent of all reported sexual assaults occur to children ages 17 and younger, though the actual magnitude of the problem may be even more substantial, as only about 38 percent of child victims disclose that they’ve been sexually abused.
Colorado is obviously not immune. According to data from the Colorado Department of Human Services, the state’s child abuse and neglect hotline saw a record number of calls in 2018, and almost 21,000 children were involved in an active case. In the almost 12,000 cases where allegations were substantiated by the end of 2018, neglect was the most common issue (9,346), followed by physical abuse (1,106), sexual abuse (955), psychological abuse (225) and medical neglect (185).
In Summit County more specifically — according to data collected by TreeTop — the Summit County Sheriff’s Office investigated 59 cases of child abuse last year and the Breckenridge Police Department investigated five. Nicole Bortot, Summit County’s child welfare manager, said that the county received a spectrum of more than 300 calls last year, and investigated 76 cases.
“We like that people are calling when they’re concerned,” said Bortot, who noted that while most calls don’t meet the criteria for follow-up, it’s important for anyone concerned to call anyway so that proper measures can be taken. “Call regardless, and we’ll make that decision.”
CASA of the Continental Divide, which has trained volunteers to visit the homes where alleged abuse has taken place and to look after the best interests of abused children during the legal process, worked with a total of 72 children in the district from 47 different cases last year (in Summit, Clear Creek, Eagle and Lake counties). The organization currently has 25 active cases open right now.
“It happens,” said Doug DeLong, executive director of CASA, a volunteer-based nonprofit that helps to investigate and represent abused and neglected children in court. “It’s there and it comes in different forms, and the way it’s delivered. Anytime a child is exposed to things like sexual abuse or any kind of mental abuse because of the environment they’re living in; or if there’s yelling and screaming going on in the house; or someone gets home under the influence of any substance and isn’t able to function in front of the children, that’s a bad situation … and neglect could just be ‘I’m just ignoring you. I’m going to pass out on the couch.’”
For advocacy groups and nonprofits combating the issue, raising awareness is the biggest piece of prevention.
“Everyday when I do advocacy work and sit there with these families, there’s a lack of understanding,” said Burdick. “‘What could I have done differently to protect my child?’ is a question I get asked every time. When they come here it’s one of the worst days they experience as a family, and I feel very strongly we’re in a position to do more in the community and we have a responsibility to do so.”
Next month, TreeTop is rolling out a new child abuse prevention campaign, which the group hopes will operate year-round from now on. As part of the campaign, TreeTop will be placing “Stop The Silence” banners in areas around the county with statistics about child abuse and information on the signs children who have been victimized may exhibit. Additionally, the group will be distributing hundreds of bookmarks with the signs to mandated reporters in the area, such as teachers, firefighters, physicians and more.
TreeTop will also begin a social media campaign featuring photographs of some of the county’s more influential groups, such as Summit Fire & EMS and town councils, holding blue pinwheels — a nationwide symbol for child abuse prevention. Both TreeTop and CASA are planning to create pinwheel gardens throughout the month to help raise awareness of the issue.
On top of the more visual campaign, TreeTop is planning a number of classes late next month for parents and children to teach them about body safety, nurturing healthy sexual development and how to react and intervene responsibly in child abuse cases.
“If we can strengthen the understanding of child abuse, we can start stopping it,” said Burdick. “That’s the point behind Stop the Silence. For every one that reports, there are two that continue to suffer. We want to remove the stigma. Children are better equipped when they’re educated.”
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