Even though April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, child advocates hope people look out for children in danger throughout the year.
“Child abuse is all around us in various forms. We want people to be mindful of it and learn to identify the signs associated with it,” said Conrad Arriola, executive director of CASA for the Highland Lakes Area. “I believe there are a lot of ways to help. It’s about having an awareness and be willing to look out for kids.”
And it doesn’t just happen in other places.
“Child abuse is in every community,” said Caroline Ragsdale, president of the Burnet County Child Welfare Board. “Everyone needs to be aware of this, and if they see something, say something.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean confronting a suspected abuser; you can report signs of abuse to authorities or the Texas Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-252-5400, she advised. If you believe a child is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.
President Ronald Reagan designated April as Child Abuse Prevention Month in 1983. In the 38 years since, child abuse cases have grown significantly.
“Sadly, since the first Child Abuse Prevention Month, the number of abused children has grown from half a million to over more than 6 million new reports, along with 1,600-plus children dying annually as a result of their abuse,” Ragsdale added. “And this number does not include missing or exploited children through (human) trafficking.”
CASA for the Highland Lakes Area serves five counties: Blanco, Burnet, Lampasas, Llano, and San Saba. In 2020, the organization served about 450 children in foster care who had been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. These specially trained volunteers represent children in the court system, school, and other areas. They are often the one constant in a child’s life.
Ragsdale said Burnet County “has an unusually high rate of abuse and neglect due to the high drug use in our area.” But, she added, abuse and neglect can happen in homes without drug or alcohol issues.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when many kids were stuck at home after in-person learning shut down, Ragsdale said child abuse incidents might have gone under-reported. Teachers are often the first to detect when a child is being abused or neglected.
“Teachers or school personnel are very important in this process as they see the child every day and notice changes in the child’s behavior or unexplained bruises on the child,” she said. “Unfortunately, during COVID, the schools were going virtual. There was a concern that children might be abused and no one (knew) about it.”
Many school personnel get additional training to spot signs of child abuse, but they and law enforcement aren’t the only ones who can stop it. Arriola and Ragsdale emphasized that everyone plays a role in preventing child abuse.
Knowing the signs of abuse is the first step, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ child abuse prevention website is a good place to learn them. The Texas Council of Child Welfare Boards also has a webpage on child abuse and neglect.
People can also volunteer through organizations such as CASA. You don’t have to be an advocate; CASA has other volunteer roles.
“By becoming a volunteer, you can take your efforts beyond just awareness and do your part to help support children and families in crisis right here in our community,” Arriola said.
For more information on volunteering or becoming a specially-trained advocate, call CASA for the Highland Lakes Area at 1-325-388-3440 or visit its website.