About 60 Head Start preschool-aged children participated in a march Thursday morning to increase public awareness of National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Walking single file through a residential area adjacent to the Head Start Center in Park Hills, the children — accompanied by workers and volunteers — were all smiles as they held up signs bringing attention to the growing problem of child abuse across the country.
Because East Missouri Action Agency (EMAA) oversees the local Head Start program in St. Francois and seven of its surrounding counties, Director Renee Killion explained that the organization wants to become an advocate in the area for the prevention of child abuse and neglect.
“We serve 542 children throughout an eight-county area,” she said. “Our children are ages 3, 4 and 5 are really vulnerable to these kind of things because of social or economic status. It’s just so important that we in society stand up for these kids.”
Killion noted that in 2016 there were 1,750 children who died in the United States from child abuse and neglect — and another 676,000 were victims of it.
“That’s of the numbers that have been reported,” she said. “A lot of times these things happen and they don’t even get reported. That’s a huge number. That’s like one in every four children experience some type of abuse or neglect in their life. That’s just way too high. We’ve got to help get those numbers down.”
According to Killion, EMAA is seeing an ever-increasing number of child abuse and neglect cases in the Parkland.
“We’re seeing more and more of it in this area,” she said. “If you can look around and see the communities that we serve has more problems, or different problems, than 50 years ago. The opioid problem is pretty prevalent through our eight counties. There’s lots of unemployment because of businesses being shut down on our families.
“We have a lot of families that work in Head Start. I think that’s kind of a misnomer where a lot of people think that they just sit at home and don’t do anything — and that’s not true. Most of our families are working families. They’re just working poor because of a lack of opportunities in those eight counties. It’s hard to raise a family of four or five people when all you make is $17,000 or $18,000 a year.”
It’s that kind of financial stress and pressure, Killion believes, that can lead to parents striking out at their children.
“I know that child abuse and neglect can happen if you’re rich, too, but it’s just we really have the vulnerable income families enrolled in our program and using EMAA services,” she said. “We do those cases and we’re just going to try to raise awareness and try to come up with ways to prevent that from happening. We have to speak out for these kids because if we don’t, nobody else will.”
EMAA’s Head Start workers are continually on the lookout for potential child abuse and neglect cases among the children they serve.
Killion said, “We are a little different from some of the other programs like the daycares or the public schools. We do monthly contacts and home visits with the families of children that are enrolled in Head Start. If we see a child’s personality changing — say they were real outgoing when they first came to Head Start, but now they’re very quiet and withdrawn — that’s a big signal.
“If we see mom’s upset or the mom and dad that always used to be there isn’t there, then we know something’s going on in that child’s life. We start working on, ‘What do you need? What can we help you with?’ We can act as a good resource and referral for our families.
“Sometimes our children come in and they say things. Children, if nothing else, are usually pretty honest — especially our age group. So, if they come in and say, ‘I’m sleepy today because my dad hit my mom and walked out’ or whatever, then we know.
“We are mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect, and all of our families know that. We tell them that the very first time we see them. We try to work with them in turning their lives around for the sake of their children.”
While April has been designated National Child Abuse Prevention/Neglect Month, it’s a year-round problem that never goes away.
“I think one of the reasons April was set aside was to specifically make sure people are aware of these problems,” Killion said. “I’ve lived in this county for a long, long time and I can see the changes — more things that weren’t happening years ago. We have to be aware of it. We have to work with it with our parents and try to raise awareness every chance we can.
“We’re the voice of the children. We are the child’s advocate. We are the ones that — and when I say ‘we,’ I mean everyone — need to speak up and try to help in these situations to make sure the kids are taken care of. It would be a wonderful day if we never saw another child abused … physically, emotionally, socially.
“Sometimes the abuse is not something you can see. It doesn’t come in the form of bruises, cuts and broken arms. It comes in the form of verbal abuse. The child starts thinking that he’s not any good, or mom’s not any good, or dad’s not any good, because that’s what they hear every night. It’s something we need to be aware of every single day.”
“It would be a wonderful day if we never saw another child abused … physically, emotionally, socially.” — Renee Killion, EMAA Head Start director
Kevin Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3614 or firstname.lastname@example.org