Nearly 700,000 children in the United States are affected by a form of child abuse each year. More shocking, approximately five children die every day as a result of abuse—two-thirds of those fatalities are children under the age of three. In honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month, Canopy Children’s Solutions wants to bring awareness to this issue that is devastating the lives of children across our state and country.
Abuse in Mississippi
The 2018 data from the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services (CPS) cited just over 6,000 evidenced cases of abuse or neglect in the state with nearly 26,000 investigations and more than 35,000 reports of suspected or alleged incidents. Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education.
What constitutes child abuse? Under Mississippi Code Section 43-21-105, child abuse is defined as a child whose parent, guardian, custodian, or any person responsible for his or her care or support, whether or not legally obligated to do so, has caused or allowed to be caused upon the child non-accidental physical injury or other maltreatment. This does not include reasonable corporal punishment. Child abuse is more broadly characterized by six major categories by the Children’s Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, abandonment, and/or substance abuse.
“Understanding what constitutes abuse is an important step in protecting those most vulnerable to it,” said Krystle Hilliard, Canopy Children’s Solutions’ Director of the South Mississippi Child Advocacy Center (SMCAC) in Gulfport. “Abuse is any type of maltreatment—physical, sexual or emotional harm; neglect; withholding food, clothing or shelter—anything that causes intentional harm. Knowing the possible signs of abuse and trusting your instincts are important.”
Signs of abuse can include:
- extreme aggressive behavior; change in demeanor; withdrawn
- unexplained injuries; bruises
- cowering from an authoritative figure
- frequent or prolonged unexcused absence from school; drop in grades
- fear of going home; unwarranted fears; nightmares
- presenting themselves as undesirable (lack of hygiene, baggy clothes, etc.)
- behavior that is not age appropriate (pants wetting in school-aged adolescents, hyper sexuality in children, delays in development, etc.)
- extreme weight loss or malnourishment
- participating in risky behavior (drug use, unprotected sexual activity, dangerous thrill seeking)
What if a child may be in danger?
If you suspect that a child has been abused, collect as much factual information as possible. Document things you have witnessed, seen or heard that make you suspect abuse with the date(s) and detailed description(s) of each occurrence (i.e. child was out of school for a week and returned with a faint bruise to his left cheek; child constantly comes to school hungry; parent yelled and called child “stupid” and “useless” over report card grades, young child seen wandering the street alone after dark).
Tammy Miller, Canopy’s South State Director, advises asking a child open-ended, non-leading questions about things you have noticed while being aware the child may not be truthful. It can be hard for a child to be open about the hurt caused by someone they love and trust. When contacting CPS, be sure to disclose if you think the child is hiding something. File a report by calling the Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-222-8000, or file a report online at https://reportabuse.mdcps.ms.gov. These two options of reporting will initiate an investigation with CPS. Only utilize these options if the situation is not an emergency. If a child appears to be in imminent danger, call 911 immediately.
Miller also noted that fear of retaliation is another major obstacle that keeps people from reporting. Reports can be made anonymously through the 800-number.
“Many people shy away from reporting concerns over fear of false accusations. If the behaviors are severe enough to warrant concern, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Miller. “In 2016, there were 41 child deaths in Mississippi related to child abuse and neglect. The threat to a child in a volatile situation can be very severe.”
Miller also reminds us filing a report does not necessarily mean a child will be removed from a home or that criminal charges will be pressed. In fact, CPS can help families access services such as substance abuse treatment, mental health evaluations, parenting skills, and other social services that can benefit the family as a whole. Canopy’s in-CIRCLE program, which is contracted through CPS, served the families of more than 2,000 children in 2018 with a 97 percent success rate in helping the family and diverting the children from entering foster care.
“Children are our most valuable, and yet, our most vulnerable assets,” said Hilliard. “We see an average of four possible child abuse cases for forensic interviews every day and it’s heartbreaking knowing what they go through. Whether you are a teacher, a parent in a grocery store, or a bystander in a parking lot, if you suspect something, make that important phone call to law enforcement or CPS. It is all of our responsibilities to be a loud voice for our weakest warriors.”
Child Abuse Prevention Awareness
During the month of April, Canopy will feature bright blue pinwheels at various locations throughout the state. Pinwheels serve as a physical reminder of the whimsical nature that should fill children’s lives and are an official symbol of child abuse prevention. The SMCAC plan to tie blue ribbons onto police vehicles along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, will take part in the “One Loud Voice” conference on preventing child abuse and will participate in the proclamation ceremonies of various Gulf Coast counties and municipalities helping to spread awareness of child abuse prevention in Mississippi.
For more information about signs and types of child abuse, visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway website at www.childwelfare.gov or contact your state child welfare agency.
ABOUT in-CIRCLE Canopy Children’s Solutions offers families involved with CPS comprehensive home and community-based support helping to reunite families and divert youth from entering the foster care system.
ABOUT SOUTH MISSISSIPPI CHILD ADVOCACY CENTER SMCAC provides forensic interviews and healing services for children involved in allegations of physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or who may have witnessed a violent crime. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, a child is able to share his or her story once which is used collectively by law enforcement, prosecutors, medical and therapeutic staff and CPS to investigate and prosecute the case while supporting the family.
Learn more about all solutions offered through Canopy Children’s Solutions at mycanopy.org.