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Speak out tonight on child abuse

Two survivors of child abuse will tell their stories at a public forum tonight to raise awareness of the issue in St. Francois County.

The speakers, Bill Simmons and Melissa Caba, will talk about the struggles they faced to build happy, successful lives.

Also speaking will be Millie Smith, with Parkland Foster Care.

The speakers will take questions from the audience at the forum which begins at 6:30 p.m. in the Fine Arts Theater at Mineral Area College.

The event was organized by Project Sunshine, a community action group studying child abuse.

Cindy Hicks, chairman of the committee that organized the forum tonight, said their goal is to start a public discussion of the problem and raise awareness.

&#8220I don’t think a lot of people realize how big a problem this is here,” she said. &#8220I know I was startled by the statistics. I just want to do what I can to help.”

According to a 2002 Kids Count Report, St. Francois County’s child abuse and neglect rate was 67.6 per 1,000. That rate was uncomfortably close to St. Louis’ rate, 78 per 1,000.

In 2004, St. Francois County had 732 cases where a child abuse or neglect investigation occurred involving 2,164 children. In 2005, the numbers dropped slightly to 652 cases involving 1,954 children.

Cheryl O’Brien, with the Division of Family Services in St. Francois County, said she is not sure why the numbers have dropped, but said she has noticed a decrease since new legislation put more controls on cold medicines that contained a key ingredient for making meth.

&#8220The number of calls we’re taking for that really seems to have leveled off,” she said.

Hicks said she hoped people will be motivated to get involved after learning more about the problem and hearing the stories of survivors.

Legislators have been invited to attend the event, and Rep. Brad Robinson and Sen. Kevin Engler have indicated they plan to attend, Hicks said, as has Judge Sandra Martinez.

&#8220The legislators will be able to ask questions,” Hicks said, &#8220as will other audience members.”

Project Sunshine was formed out of an ad hoc committee that began meeting two years ago. The group has since formed a non-profit group, electing officers and creating bylaws.

The organization has already accomplished a number of projects. The Daily Journal did a picture/essay contest about families, KREI Radio began a radio show called Kids First, several brochures and resource guides were developed and a Blue Sunday awareness day was established.

Board member Meg Stevenson pointed out the meetings provide a platform for networking and communication among disparate agencies and groups that may have different missions, but must still deal with some aspect of child abuse and neglect. Stevenson also said public awareness has improved through local media outlets reporting on the committee’s work.

Project Sunshine has six committees which are continuing to develop new projects this year.

In addition to the public forum, upcoming projects include one that will put a book in the hands of targeted children as a way to encourage and promote family literacy. The books will include a flyer about adult literacy and educational opportunities.

The Faith Committee is preparing a six-week Christian parenting class called Running the Rapids, which will be available for a mere $5 to cover instructional materials. The class will be non-denominational, says Rocky Good, one of the committee members. It will promote effective parenting techniques and healthy values without being preachy or delving into particular religious issues. It is set to start sometime after Easter, and more details will be released when plans are more definite.

Blue Sunday awareness activities in April, baby sitting classes for youths and resource guides are among other efforts of the committees.

Anyone interested in getting involved in one of the group’s committees is encouraged to contact Tammy Durbin with Caring Communities at 431- 3173.

Project Sunshine’s committees are Public Awareness; Economic Development; Youth Activities & Mentoring; Health, Mental Health and Substance Abuse; Alternative Care and Faith Community.

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