Local experts report more cases of child abuse every year
April is Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention month and local leaders are using it to educate the community.
Last year, there were nearly 4,000 reported cases of child abuse in the 14th circuit alone. (The 14th Judicial circuit includes Bay, Gulf, Calhoun, Jackson, Washington and Holmes Counties.)
They say child abuse in our area is rampant and they're stepping up efforts to stop abuse on the front end.
Some things in life are not easy to talk about. Cayla Keaton, 11, knows this first hand.
"I was sexually abused by my step-father when I was seven... until I was eight," she said. "I was scared to come home. And in school I was less focused."
But now Cayla realizes that using her voice to talk about these things proved to be the best way to solve them.
"My mom started asking me if anything was going on," she said. "And that's when I was like, I should probably tell her."
Cayla began therapy at the Gulf Coast Children's Advocacy Center. Last year, almost 2,000 children received therapy and guidance for abuse and trauma.
Before her own abuse, Cayla said she didn't know much about abuse. But now she's open to talking about her experience so others can learn. She has told some of her classmates and has asked her principal to host a day where students and staff wear teal in support of Child Abuse Awareness Month.
"Because it's at a young age where, like, they soak up all of this information," Cayla said. "Even now in middle school you still kind of, but you want to get it young so that you know it's OK to tell. Because it could happen to you at any time."
That's the exact mission of the CAC's Community Advocate Program.
On this Thursday, Monique Gorman is standing before a group of fifth grade students at Deerpoint Elementary. As the agency's only full-time community advocate, she has begun visiting local schools with a state-approved curriculum. In one portion of the lesson, she tells students that no one should look at, touch or talk about their private parts. Gorman uses engaging lessons and techniques to teach students how to identify abuse and how to address it, especially as the CAC receives more reports of child abuse each year.
"It happens every day," Gorman said. "It happens in the best of families. It happens in the best of communities, so it's time. We've got to open our eyes to it and we've gotta start talking about it."
In six months of doing this, almost 100 children have told their secret, they're being abuse. That doesn't include other children who may have revealed their secrets to another trusted adult, whom they learned to identify through the lesson.
"It's not an easy thing for a child to step up and say, 'This person is harming me,'" Gorman said. "So to watch these students after receiving the lesson be empowered to speak up and say something has been incredible."
Some of the students in the lesson were surprised to see how in depth the lesson got.
"I thought she was gonna talk about the obvious stuff," said fifth grader Wyatt. "You know, stay away from strangers and stuff like that. But it actually got more deeper than I thought it would."
"Hah! Yeah," laughed another student Lacie.
While the material strays from scare tactics, it is meant to be eye opening.
"She was really nice to come in the classroom and warn us about all that stuff," said Lacie. "Because we probably would have found out later."
"This stuff really does matter," said Wyatt. "I bet that she did teach some kids some stuff they needed to know later in life. And she wanted to teach them that you don't have to lean this first hand. You can learn this from us [Gorman] and you can prevent that from happening."
And he was right. Gorman said about a student per class ends up confiding in her potential abuse.
"It's so hard to event picture that there's abuse of neglect within our community," said Cathy Harcus. "But it is rampant."
Harcus is on the front end of the fight against child abuse. She works with Healthy Families, teaching local moms and moms-to-be how to properly care for and discipline their children.
She hopes to provide more moms the opportunity to take classes with Healthy Families, just as the CAC hopes to add more staff like Gorman to the roster to teach in more schools and civic organizations. They hope lawmakers approve more funding to make that happen.
Harcus said many local cases of abuse stem from drug abuse and a history of domestic violence. And though abuse can be passed from parent to child, she said there are ways to help. Plus, state law makes every Floridian a mandated reporter of child abuse. Failure to do so is a felony.
Harcus says they can't change everyone, but says that people do have the power to influence the people immediately around them by keeping watch and reporting anything suspicious.
"I would say do your part to make sure every kid in your avenue, your arena, your sphere, your neighborhood has a great childhood," she said. "If nothing else, a great childhood."
Cayla is bravely living out what is shaping up to be a happy childhood. She wants to be a veterinarian. While she is no longer in therapy, she does meet often with a girls group made up of other young girls who have had similar experiences.
She wants to teach kids to speak up and for grown ups to listen. She knows what happened can't be erased, but she does know she has the strength to forge ahead.
"I can be very brave when I want to." she said, smiling. "It's amazing. It's a great feeling."