April 8, 2013

Child abuse reports hit epidemic levels in Tarrant County

For National Child Abuse Prevention Month, volunteers set up a pinwheel display at TCU to represent 5,598 children in Tarrant County who were confirmed victims of physical or sexual abuse in 2012.

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FORT WORTH -- Thousands of shimmery blue and silver pinwheels, the national symbol of child-abuse prevention, twirled in tidy rows Monday on the lawn of TCU. For National Child Abuse Prevention Month, volunteers set up the pinwheel display along south University Drive to represent each of 5,598 children in Tarrant County who were confirmed victims of physical or sexual abuse in 2012.

"The pinwheels are beautiful until you realize what they represent," Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said. "Then it makes you almost just want to stop and cry to think that almost 5,600 kids have in some way or form been abused in the last year and that part of their childhood has been taken from them."

Child advocates say they hope the bold visual display will prompt community conversations about protecting children from the emotional or physical harm of abuse.

"In Tarrant County, one child-abuse victim is too many, but 5,598 is epidemic in its proportions," said Julie Evans, Alliance for Children executive director. "We hope this month this community will take the time to acknowledge these children and think 'What more can I do?' Child abuse is preventable."

Over the past 20 years, the Alliance for Children has helped more than 40,000 children across Tarrant County who have been victims of abuse or who have witnessed a violent crime. The nonprofit organization, which works closely with Child Protective Services, the Tarrant County district attorney's office, Cook Children's Medical Center and area police agencies, has centers in Arlington, Fort Worth and Hurst.

Whitley was among community leaders Monday who thanked the organization and its partners for their collaborative efforts to protect children from abuse and to help their families heal.

"I know many of them may be scarred for life and may never be able to come back from that. But there are those who do make it back because, during their experience with Alliance for Children, what they learn is they can trust adults again and they can feel that love surrounding them again," Whitley said. "They also are encouraged to receive counseling so hopefully that scar doesn't stay with them forever and they grow up and become loving caring parents who will hopefully never have to explain to their kids that that is not what growing up is about."

Issue won't go away

Of the 2,262 children served by the Alliance for Children last year, nearly 35 percent were below the age of 5, about 42 percent were between ages 6 and 12, and the rest were between the ages 13 and 18.

One of the nonprofit's many services includes counseling. Last year, 280 caregivers, 253 girls and 59 boys participated in group counseling while another 45 girls and 14 boys received individual counseling, officials said.

Ignoring child abuse won't make the issue go away, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said.

"You start thinking about child abuse and you think this is in somebody else's back yard. It's not. It can hit anyone," Price said. "Any child that is abused loses their trust and their faith in humanity, and the rest of us suffer as well as that child. No innocent child should have to do that."

Nearly 63 percent of the 2,262 children served last year by Alliance for Children were victims of sexual abuse. The victims did not know the perpetrators in less than 3 percent of the cases, according to the center.

Staggering numbers

The Arlington Police Department also set up 323 pinwheels in front of its station this week to recognize the confirmed child sexual assault victims in the city last year.

"The numbers are staggering," Arlington Deputy Chief Jennifer White said, adding that the city also recorded 193 confirmed child victims of physical abuse. "We know that number not only represents 516 innocent victims with physical or emotional wounds but it's just a small fraction of the total victims we know are out there."

White said it is her hope that communities continue to dedicate the funding and resources needed to help the victims heal and to incarcerate the people who hurt them.

"The only hope at preventing child abuse is to come together to discuss candidly what the problem is and to raise awareness so that our communities can become involved and say 'Enough is enough,'" White said.

Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578

Twitter: @susanschrock

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