By Lori Antkoviak, Safe Harbor Executive Director and Gari Voss, Correspondent
April was first designated as Child Abuse Prevention Month in 1983 as a time to acknowledge the importance of families and communities to pool their resources to prevent child abuse. Of the 683,000 reports across the United States in 2015, 1,670 children died as a result of the abuse and neglect. Most cases were related to situations and conditions that could have been prevented if programs had been properly implemented. The programs focus on training adults to recognize and respond to situations and provide assistance to parents and other non-abusive adults.
Allegan County is fortunate to have Safe Harbor, a children’s advocacy center that has been committed to preventing child abuse and neglect since 1983. Their mission is “to provide a safe and child-friendly atmosphere to allow a child to disclose neglect, sexual, or physical abuse and to heal from the abuse.”
Safe Harbor consists of the Beverly Schroeder Advocacy Center, the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program, and the Prevention Education Program that provide free services for medical services, forensic interviews, counseling services, prevention education, and victim advocacy.
Prevention begins when every adult learns how to protect the children in their communities. While children are taught about Body Safety and how to talk to a trusted adult, many adults do not recognize abuse or know how to properly respond to children when they speak about their experiences.
Protecting children from abuse should not be the job of the children in the community to self-report. In 2020, 3,239 children in Allegan County were involved in child abuse and neglect investigations. With 26,960 children in Allegan County, that equals 12% of the children in our County being involved. This percentage is lower than the previous two years when 16% of the children in the County were investigated for abuse and neglect.
Safe Harbor provides a variety of opportunities for adults to learn how to protect children. Lori Antkoviak, Executive Director of Safe Harbor stressed, “These trainings are free and can be done for any group or can help you be a trusted adult for a child victim.”
The Stewards of Children interactive video training program helps adults learn the facts about child sexual abuse, create safer environments for children, recognize the signs of abuse, and properly report suspected abuse. This program is designed for presentation to any group of adults in the community.
There are many adults referred to as mandated reporters, such as teachers, nurses, and coaches, who are required by law to report suspected child abuse. Safe Harbor provides training to groups of mandated reporters explaining their responsibilities as set forth by the Child Protection Law. Stewards of Children workshops give clear examples and information for recognizing signs of abuse, responding to suspected abuse, and reporting correctly.
There are other ways to protect children in our community. Be a friend. Social connections are an important protective factor for families. Building a connection with neighbors is an important way for families and communities to strengthen security for children and adults alike.
Every adult should learn how to respond to kids and how to report suspected abuse and neglect. Even when mandatory reporters are trained to recognize child abuse, they must understand that their verbal and physical responses to a child are extremely important.
Clarifying the words a child uses when telling his/her “story” is necessary to learn what truly happened. What a child first says may need additional explanation that assists in understanding the situation. Antkoviak shared, “Children have a limited vocabulary and it takes time for them to accurately relate an incident that may be extremely confusing and serious to them.”
During 2020, Safe Harbor has responded to the 198 reports of sexual or severe physical abuse. This is lower than the normal 210-220 incidents, but is still higher than 10 years ago when they addressed 140-160 reports.
These interactions often are begun with a report from law enforcement or the Children’s Protective Service, but Allegan is fortunate to have an agency like Safe Harbor with a staff that is experienced in interviewing children. Their interactions with children can often save law enforcement hours when investigating reports.
Beyond identifying and responding to reported abuse and neglect situations, Safe Harbor also provides training and assistance to adults across the county so they can advocate for children. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) trains adult volunteers to assist children of abuse and neglect as they navigate the family court process.
Whether an adult wants to learn more about identifying abuse and neglect, listening/responding to a child, or becoming an advocate, people can truly become proactive in preventing child abuse and neglect.
As Antkoviak states, “The power of One – You can make a difference to a child. One person, one voice, one dollar, one action. The power of one can make a difference in our community.”
Contact Safe Harbor to schedule a training or to learn how you can make a difference in protecting children in our community.
www.safeharborcac.org. To arrange a training call 269-673-3791 or email Lori at email@example.com.