WELLSBURG - Child abuse and neglect is a growing problem, but teachers, school secretaries and others can curtail it by being watchful for warning signs and acting promptly, said Rhonda Stubbs, executive director of A Child's Place Court-Appointed Special Advocate program and a facilitator for the Darkness to Light program.
Since it was established in 2000, A Child's Place CASA has trained volunteers to represent the interests of more than 290 children involved in abuse and neglect cases in Brooke and Hancock counties.
Established the same year, Darkness to Light is a nonprofit organization that attempts to reduce sexual child abuse through awareness and education.
OFFERING TIPS — Rhonda Stubbs, executive director of A Child’s Place Court-Appointed Special Advocate program and a facilitiator for the Darkness to Light program, told Brooke County School employees they must report suspected child abuse and neglect during a three-part program held at Brooke High School.
Stubbs recently presented a three-part program on the subject to teachers, secretaries, bus drivers, custodians and other Brooke County Schools employees.
The program was arranged by Tom Davidson, the school district's nutrition director who also is charged with scheduling programs needed for all staff members to fulfill continuing education requirements.
Stubbs encouraged the school personnel to watch for changes in behavior, such as a return to earlier behaviors such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting, dramatic changes in personality or inappropriate sexual touching, often linked to sexual abuse, that can indicate neglect or abuse.
It's not uncommon for physically active children to have bruises or cuts, but bruises to the back, thighs, buttocks, face or backs of the legs are less likely to be accidental, she said.
Even in cases of abuse, children often will try to hide their injuries because they believe they deserved, fear they will be punished for telling or worry they will be separated from their parent or guardian, Stubbs said.
Despite being abused, a child often feels a strong connection to his or her parent or guardian, she said.
Stubbs said under West Virginia Code 49-6A-2, teachers and other school personnel are legally required to report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect. The law also applies to medical professionals, social workers, child care or foster care workers, clergy and others.
They should call the 24-hour Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at (304) 352-6513 within 48 hours if they suspect neglect and a local law enforcement agency immediately if they suspect abuse, she said.
Stubbs stressed they shouldn't be concerned about whether they have enough evidence because determination of whether abuse or neglect has occurred falls to a public children's services agency.
Those who report suspected abuse or neglect are asked for their name but the agency won't divulge it during the investigation, she said.
Stubbs acknowledged there are situations in which information given to the agency can tip off the parent or guardian to the reporter's identity, but there are legal protections for those who report suspected child abuse or neglect in good faith.
Most importantly, by reporting, individuals can help to end a cycle of abuse and could save a child's life, she said.
Those who suspect abuse or neglect should be careful not to pressure or panic the child and should never confront the parent or guardian, Stubbs said.
She said often parents who abuse or neglect their children were abused and neglected as children themselves. Most parents aren't formally trained to care for children and fall back on the examples set by their own parents, Stubbs noted.
Being a parent is not easy, and it's easy to become frustrated and overreact, she said.
The good news is few of these parents suffer from mental disorders and can learn good parenting skills. Through the court system, they may be given the opportunity to learn with supervision, Stubbs said.
Child abuse and neglect occurs in households of all incomes, but there is evidence financial difficulties can be a factor, she noted.
Stubbs added it can occur in families at various times of need, including the birth of a new child, the death of a family member or health problems.
Anyone can help by reaching out to the parent of a student, neighbor or other person they encounter who appears to be experiencing stress, she said.
Stubbs said child abuse and neglect are more likely to occur in homes where parents have few friends or family members in which to confide.
Stubbs is available to speak to other groups about the Darkness to Light program and can be reached at (304) 737-4444.
(Scott can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)