DECATUR — The number of kids put under the supervision of the Macon County court system because of child abuse incidents increased 44 percent in 2017 from the year before. Organizers of a panel discussion Tuesday are working to see that trend decline.
“We need to enlist everyone (for prevention) so we don’t have so many children to deal with in Macon County,” said Steve Miller, executive director of the Macon County Court Appointed Special Advocates, a nonprofit organization that assists with abused or neglected children in the legal system.
Macon County last year reported 87 additional kids compared to 2016. Children in care are supported by the Department of Court Family Services, CASA, child welfare agencies, courts, law enforcement, educators and health care, Miller said. But the missing component that officials hope to improve through awareness efforts is the community working to address this problem and support parents and families who are struggling, he said.
A panel of experts Tuesday shared experiences and answered questions at Eisenhower High School, discussing the best way to prevent cases of abuse. The group included Kristin Kaufman from Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, Sarah Biehl from Heritage Behavioral Health, and Shelley Husemann from Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois. The moderator was Terrence “TAT” Taylor, a radio show host and Decatur Public Schools family support coordinator.
Kaufman, a Prevent Child Abuse Illinois prevention specialist for the central region, said prevention must be a goal for the overall community to protect children and families before trauma occurs.
“Prevention comes down to strengthening families,” Kaufman said.
This can be done through programs for new parents, encouraging positive behaviors instead of reacting to negative ones and creating a trusting relationship between social service professionals and families. The panel said the stigma around seeking help as parents should be diminished so people who need assistance or guidance can ask for it.
“Trust is what is going to start making a change,” Kaufman said.
Part of this can be providing information about traumatic experiences to people in schools or other areas where children are. Oftentimes people don’t know how to recognize when children are exhibiting certain behaviors because of trauma in their homes, panelists said.
These behaviors are brought on by stress conditioning and children operating in survival mode for long periods of time, Biehl said. Children sometimes show signs of abuse through these behaviors that are strange in situations, such as suddenly wetting the bed, growing shy, becoming angry or acting like a parent.
A child who suffers abuse may experience more triggers in school or other activities, which can come across as bad behavior but may have a deeper reason, Biehl said.
The perception of the programs can prevent those from seeking help, Husemann said. People are afraid of getting involved with the state, she said. But it isn’t necessarily a bad situation.
“We are not baby rescuers,” she said. “We are not here to raise a group of children in the system but to heal families.”
There were also representatives from community organizations to provide more information to parents, guardians and others interested in volunteering for services.
Anyone who suspects a child is being abused or neglected is asked to call (800) 252-2873. Each year, 250,000 calls are made.
More information is at preventchildabuseillinois.org.
The event was organized as part of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, which started in 1983. The group National Children’s Alliance estimates nearly 700,000 children are abused annually in the U.S.