April is child abuse awareness month and last year, in Hernando County there were more than 2,000 reports of child abuse and neglect.
There is no question that child abuse is uncomfortable to talk about, but not talking about it leaves our children at risk. Child abuse does not discriminate against ethnicity, religion and socio-economic levels. It affects everyone. It is time to bring child abuse to the forefront of our community and protect our children.
Child abuse is defined in the Florida Statutes as "any willful act or threatened act that results in any physical, mental, or sexual injury or harm that causes or is likely to cause the child's physical, mental, or emotional health to be significantly impaired. Abuse of a child includes acts or omissions."
For the last two years, the Children's Advocacy Center of Hernando County, a program of Mid Florida Community Services Inc., has been providing services to victims of child abuse and neglect. The center provides a child-friendly, safe environment for assisting abused and neglected children. It is dedicated to reducing trauma through intervention, prevention, and education.
Prior to the center, a victim of abuse and neglect would have to go to several different agencies to tell his or her story, as well as to other facilities for medical exams, mental health counseling, and the like. Telling his or her story so many times truly re-victimizes that child. Being pulled out of school so often brings unwanted attention to that child. When a child victim is brought to the center, all the services are in one location.
A forensic interview is completed by the University of Florida's Child Protection Team. If needed, a medical exam is also completed. An observation room is available for the Department of Children and Families and state or local law enforcement agencies to observe the interview thereby reducing the number of times the child has to tell his or her story. The center also contracts with three mental health counselors who work with the child victims. These services are provided at no cost to the family.
Agency partners come together to discuss and make decisions regarding the investigation, safety, treatment, and prosecution of child abuse and neglect cases. Together, we are able to provide comprehensive services and ongoing support to help the child victim recover from the trauma of abuse and/or neglect.
We as a community need to take the same approach. Our children are entitled to hope — an involved, concerned, caring community can provide that. It is no longer acceptable to look the other way. We need to protect our greatest asset — our children.
Janine L. Hammett is program coordinator for the Children's Advocacy Center at Mid Florida Community Services Inc.