Uncomfortable awareness

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 141 views 

This week begins an effort by The City Wire to focus on the wholly unpleasant topic of child abuse.

We do not do this because it is an engaging topic for which we believe will drive traffic to our website. It is certainly an off-putting issue. Point out at your next crowded dinner party that about five children in the U.S. die each day from some form of child abuse and you’ll soon have plenty of elbow room. Announce that the number of Arkansas child maltreatment cases rose from 7,831 in fiscal 2010 to 8,573 in fiscal 2011, and chances are good you’ll find yourself attending fewer social events.

And that’s the problem.

We don’t want to believe or we find it hard to comprehend that about 80% of children who die from abuse are under four-years old, or that about 30% of abused children will one day abuse their children, or that child abuse is found in all socio-economic sectors.

Sam Sicard was embarrassed at his lack of understanding about the pervasiveness of child abuse. Like many, he was outraged at what happened at Penn State. But unlike many, the president and CEO of First Bank Corp., (the parent company of First National Bank of Fort Smith and First National Bank of Rogers) decided to get engaged. His embarrassment soon morphed into shock as his efforts to learn more about the problem resulted in the discovery of numerous people in the area who were abused as children.

We’ll have the story about some of the things Sicard has done and continues to do to push back against this unfortunate monster.

Garrett Lewis, the chief meteorologist for KFSM 5 News, is an example of the pervasiveness that Sicard discovered. Lewis was six-years old when he was the victim of abuse. It has proven a terrific burden on his life. We may see each day a smiling and successful husband, father and TV personality, but Lewis struggles each day to push the smiles to the forefront.

We’ll have Lewis’ story in which he admits he struggles working with children because he’s not “emotionally ready” to see little ones hurting and struggling to understand “the betrayal of the soul” that occurs when they are the victims of sexual abuse.

There is also a personal reason I have chosen to spend The City Wire resources on an issue that may turn off our readers — Mom.

Linda Tilley, who lives in Lamar (Johnson County), spent almost five years as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer.

The stories she tells — with names changed to protect the clients, of course — are often so disturbing as to be unbelievable. I’ve often thought that if it weren’t Mom telling these stories, I indeed might discount them as exaggeration or fabrication.

“It’s everywhere. People don’t realize how much of this is going on,” Mom said during a recent discussion. “These little kids from these homes are so traumatized … and then they are put in the classroom with your kids, so even the kids from good homes, they are being touched by it.”

The cases she has dealt with range from young parents who make a mistake and are devoted to working through state requirements, to parents who are mentally ill or meth-addicted and “should never have contact with their children,” Mom explained.

She recently stepped away from the CASA work to spend more time with parenting classes because she believes this work will have a more long-term impact.

The work is tough. She has counseled about 120 parents from Johnson, Logan, Pope and Yell counties, and “maybe 15% get it” and improve and move on. It’s discouraging, but she knows the lives of a few children will be better because of the 15% rate.

And she does occasionally receive “sparks of hope.” Mom received a call last week from a client who “graduated” out of the parenting class program. Her first thought was that the young mother had fallen back into drug addiction.

“She was concerned that she couldn’t return to the parenting class now that she had graduated. She wanted to know if she could come back, and I told her, ‘Lord, yes, you can keep coming,’” Mom said.

More good news in this troubling area is the work that will soon expand at Northwest Arkansas Community College (NWACC) in Bentonville. Such work will be a great resource to Mom, Sicard, Lewis and hundreds of others who are involved or want to be involved in raising awareness of and/or reducing the incidence of child abuse.

NWACC hopes to raise $3.25 million in the next seven months to build the Southern Regional training center for the National Child Protection Training center. Such centers work with prosecutors, teachers, police, forensic interviewers, caseworkers and others who deal with child abuse. So far, about $614,000 has been raised toward the goal.

Victor Vieth, executive director of the NCPTC, has high hopes. He says the NWACC center will provide training for a 16-state region and will play a role in ending child abuse.

With this series — at least one story a month on the topic — it is not our goal to investigate deeply the causes of child abuse, nor analyze the politics of state and federal money and agencies involved in child services. It is not our goal to take sides or point fingers on government or cultural actions we as a society — locally and nationally — have or have not made to create or counter this ugliness.

With respect to the issue of child abuse, we simply want our Kind Readers to be simultaneously aware and uncomfortable. If that cultivates involvement, all the more better.