Five children die every day in the U.S. as a result of child abuse—75 percent of those fatalities are children under the age of three. Child abuse affects 7.2 million American children each year. The most recent report from the Mississippi Department of Human Services cited nearly 7,000 evidenced cases of abuse or neglect in the state with nearly 26,000 investigations. Canopy Children’s Solutions, Mississippi’s most comprehensive provider of children’s behavioral health, educational, and social service solutions, works with agencies and families across the state to educate families and prevent child abuse from happening.

Canopy’s South Mississippi Child Advocacy Center (CAC), located in Gulfport, works with children involved in substantiated claims where allegations of abuse, neglect, violent crimes and child exploitation have been made. Nearly 20 percent of all substantiated cases occurred in the southernmost counties of the state, which makes the mission to end child abuse something near and dear to the staff of the CAC.

“The CAC provides families on the Gulf Coast with forensic interviews which are used by local law enforcement and public defenders to prosecute cases that involve the mistreatment of children,” said Shawna Pankonin, Director for the CAC. “When a case if referred to us by local police, we conduct a forensic interview, which collects the child’s account of what happened in their own words. We then gather a multi-disciplinary team of professionals from healthcare providers, to prosecutors and law enforcements, to mental health providers to wrap around this child and family and make sure they get the care they need and also work together to prosecute the case.”

South Mississippi Child Advocacy Center

The CAC establishes the missing link between the criminal justice system and victims without further traumatizing the child. The trauma caused by having to relive the experience over and over again can cause irreparable damage to brain physiology, self-esteem, learning processes, and create a lifelong gap in the victim’s sense of safety in the world.

The CAC is uniquely positioned to assist with healing the trauma of abuse and the effects it has on both the child victims and their families. CAC provides not only forensic interviews but also in-home family therapy, child and family advocacy including navigation of the judicial system, and offers support and case management services with assessments and referrals to appropriate resources either on-site or within the community.

Pankonin estimates she has worked with more than 750 children since 2015. She has also been instrumental in coordinating informational seminars to educate those in law enforcement, healthcare and behavioral health on topic such as child exploitation and trafficking. As part of Child Abuse Prevention Month, the CAC attended the One Loud Voice Conference which focuses on the multidisciplinary approach to child abuse. They also participated in a variety of ceremonies that aim to honor and memorialize victims of child abuse. The CAC also wanted to send a direct message to the children entering the center during the month of April that they have found a place of refuge, hanging blue and white decorations out front to honor the hundreds children they serve and fight for each year.

“If you have been a victim of abuse, whether it is physical, sexual or even emotional, tell someone. If that person doesn’t listen, tell someone else,” said Pankonin. “Keep telling people until someone listens. Fight to get the help you need and just know you are not alone.”

If you suspect abuse of a child, contact the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-222-8000 which is operated by a live person 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. You can also file a report online at www.msabusehotline.mdhs.ms.gov.

To learn more about the South Mississippi Child Advocacy Center or ways you can help support their mission, please visit mycanopy.org or call 228-868-8686.