Pinwheels mark Child Abuse Prevention Month

  • Published
  • By Paula Spooner
  • 81st Medical Operations Squadron
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month and Keesler has a long tradition of recognizing this worthy distinction by planting a colorful garden of twirling pinwheels in front of Keesler Medical Center.

Each pinwheel symbolizes a child who was substantiated for child abuse or neglect in Harrison and Jackson counties within the previous calendar year. Sadly, in 2013 the total was a whopping 1,293 - about 200 more children than Family Advocacy has the pinwheels to represent. These two coastal counties lead the entire state of Mississippi in child abuse cases. What's happening here?

First of all, let's be clear: Child abuse and neglect crosses all county lines and doesn't single anyone out by income, education, race, faith, gender, sexual orientation or marital status. That said, there are certain risk factors that can increase the potential for family maltreatment to occur. Financial strain, social isolation, unemployment, compulsive gaming, substance abuse, mental health issues, poor stress management and lack of parenting skills can all contribute to a risky situation.

Local child protection agencies believe that too many Gulf Coast citizens are still struggling with the long-term effects of a catastrophic chain of events. It began with Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Devastation was everywhere and loss for many was total. A large percentage of residents relocated elsewhere; those who remained faced unrelenting stress. People coped as best as they could. But no sooner did struggling local businesses re-open than the BP oil spill occurred. The economy was shaky and unemployment high.

These days we seem to have stabilized somewhat, but survival remains a challenge for a lot of families. And while survival challenges create higher potential for child abuse risk factors, we need to shift our focus from these risk factors to protective factors. It is only then that we begin to envision solutions.

What can Keesler do to assist in cultivating a community that is rich in protective factors for our children and families? As it turns out, plenty! Whether you reside on base or off, in the immediate local area or across the state line, the truth is every one of us has a responsibility to take an active part in preventing child abuse, because we are all stakeholders. Today's children are tomorrow's adults and leaders. Adults are entrusted to keep children safe and how we do this can take many forms. The following examples are ways you can build protective factors right in your neighborhood.

· Social Connections - Be a friend. We all need friends. Because they often haven't had the time or opportunity to establish reliable alliances/friendships, newly- arrived families can feel isolated. This increases potential for family tension when external stress hits. Minimize this by introducing yourself, sharing information about key-spouse activities, preschools and playgroups, asking about interests/hobbies and providing local leads, or by organizing a neighborhood meet-and-greet once they're moved in.

· Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development - Be a role model. If you are a seasoned parent or grandparent, you are a walking wealth of knowledge to a new parent. Remember back to when you first held your own brand new baby and how wonderful/scary that felt? Suddenly, it no longer mattered how meticulously you had prepared. Be a mentor to new, young, single, nervous or stressed out parents who are far away from their own extended families. A well-timed, "This too shall pass" is worth its weight in gold to a stressed out mom and dad.

· Parental Resilience - Be a surrogate. Life stress happens to everyone. The faster parents can "bounce back" after an unexpected blow, the less likely the kids will suffer. Kids are at higher risk when they are age 3 and under, have special needs, their parents are geographically separated or divorcing or are one in a set of multiples. Reach out and "adopt" these families by offering your time, support, a "listening ear" and plenty of understanding.

· Social/Emotional Competence of Kids - Be a teacher. When I conduct briefings on base, I often begin by showing a video clip of various adult actors as they make their way through a typical day. Each quite distinctly models a less than socially acceptable behavior: racism, littering, road rage, public intoxication, cruelty to animals, and finally - family violence. The clincher is that each adult is being closely trailed by a small child who perfectly mimics the verbiage and behaviors of the adult being observed. The message, in all its simplicity, is startlingly profound.

We are all teachers and not only of our own children. When we smile sympathetically at an over-tired, crying child in a grocery store, that child feels warmed by the kindness of a stranger. The seeds of empathy are planted. We model manners, respect, anger management, following rules/laws, boundaries, saying "I'm so sorry - I was wrong," and recognizing and expressing affection and feelings. Everywhere we go, children learn from our examples. As adults, we have the power to make our example positive or negative - anti-social or pro-social.

· Concrete Supports for Parents - Be a conduit. Recognize that everyone needs help sometimes. Deployments, illness, pregnancies, new babies, job losses, deaths and unexpected expenses can destabilize even the most highly functioning family. Organized neighborhood support networks to pitch in with transportation, errands or childcare are great ideas, as is assistance with upkeep of yard and home. Don't wait to be asked and don't worry if you aren't gratefully acknowledged; you are definitely appreciated. Sometimes it's difficult to accept help from others, but at some point in time, we will all be there. Just be matter-of-fact and practical and provide help with whatever they need.

So there you have it. There is no limit to the ways we can all reach out and support a family. Remember, we are all responsible. We all play a vital part. And every time we support a family, we protect the children. The way I see it, that's the smartest way to pay it forward.