Stewards of Children initiative fights child sexual abuse
Program trains workers to spot, report the signs
Parents in Hall County can rest just a little bit easier knowing that several community organizations are watching out for their children.
More than 25 organizations that work closely with children have joined the Hall County Prevention Initiative and are training their staffs to prevent and recognize the signs of child sexual abuse.
Steve Collins, president of Adults Protecting Children, said the goal of the initiative is to train 5 percent of the adults in Hall County.
Collins calls the 5 percent goal the “tipping point” to enacting a cultural change. Currently, the initiative has trained about 11 percent of its goal. He anticipates it taking another three to four years to reach about 9,000 people.
But the initiative is closer to reaching its goal because of organizations such as Gainesville Parks and Recreation, Quinlan Visual Arts Center, INK, Westminster Presbyterian Church and The Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County. Each organization has trained its entire staff and earned a Partners in Prevention designation from Darkness to Light, the developers of the Stewards of Children training program.
Melvin Cooper, director of Gainesville Parks and Recreation, said the goal is to continue to train everyone who works with children through the organization’s programs, including full- and part-time staff and volunteer youth coaches.
“Our main focus is the safety and well-being of every child in our programs,” Cooper said in an email. “Parents trust us with their children and we want to make sure that we are doing everything possible to protect them while in our care.”
Andi Harmon, division manager at Frances Meadows Aquatic Center, is certified to train the city’s employees. She’s teaching all the new lifeguards to recognize signs of abuse as the center gears up for the busy summer months where the lifeguards are sure to interact with many children.
Harmon said she thinks the program will help adults know how to better address the topic of sexual abuse, not just with children but with other adults.
“I think it sheds a light on it,” Harmon said. “It’s unfortunate that we even have to do it. But we need to put a focus on it so it’s not a hidden topic. The first part of solving the problem is opening that dialogue.”
Ignoring or not reporting a suspicion of abuse isn’t an option.
A Georgia law passed last year requires doctors, nurses, teachers, volunteers, clergy and others who work with children to report suspected child abuse to authorities within 24 hours, or face criminal charges.
Cooper said the program gives volunteers and staff the confidence to act responsibly.
“It’ll take an entire community of people to stop child abuse,” Cooper said. “The more people who are conscious of the issue and understand how to avoid a certain situation or react in a situation, the better.”
The training takes about two hours and costs $15 per person. Those who are interested in training can email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the initiative’s website at www.preventnow.org.
Other county initiatives like the ones in Lumpkin and Rabun, have already reached their tipping point.
“You can see how, in Lumpkin County, there is much more of a community impact because there are so many more of those in the areas where children are (who) have been trained,” Collins said.
Signs like the establishment of a new child advocacy center and more frequent calls to law enforcement indicate that a cultural change is taking place in the community.
Collins said he envisions a community in Hall County that can protect children from abuse by educating adults.
“Child sexual abuse happens because of the choices adults make,” Collins said.
Adults can ensure the organizations their children participate in have policies in place that will protect children.
Adults can do a lot by simply learning to listen to the kids.
“We’re reducing the opportunities for child abuse,” Collins said. “We’ll never eliminate it, but we can certainly change the structure of these organizations and make them safer so the numbers will eventually be down. And perpetrators will know that Hall County is not a safe place for them to engage in any kind of abusive activity because there are too many adults looking out for children.”
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