CATEGORY: Lafayette County
HED:Child abuse prevention center becomes reality
By Errol Castens
OXFORD - "Preventing child abuse is like eating an elephant," Mickey Boyette said. "You just do it one family at a time - one bite at a time."
Boyette, southeast regional vice president of national Exchange Clubs, delivered his remarks Sunday afternoon at the opening of "Putting Children First," the Exchange Club Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse of North Mississippi. The facility at 2000 Old Taylor Road is the first of its kind in North Mississippi.
The face of child abuse
"There is a need for this center," Boyette said, citing statewide statistics of more than 17,000 child abuse allegations per year, with more than 4,000 cases of abuse substantiated.
"You can't put a single face on abusive families," he said. "They can look like anybody. People often connect child abuse with poor families, but it cuts across all social, economic and racial lines.
One of the first cases of abuse Boyette encountered after becoming active in Exchange was in the family of a well-respected physician, he said.
"They got help, and later they were reunited," he added.
Reaching at-risk families
The mission of Putting Children First is "to break the cycle of child abuse and neglect ... and to replace abusive behavior with effective skills for responsible parenting."
All center services are free to at-risk families, who may be referred by school counselors or teachers, clergy, friends, relatives, or social workers. Participation is voluntary for each family.
"We're there to help them one-on-one," said Karen Rich, a program specialist with Exchange's Foundation for the Prevention of Child Abuse. "We're not authoritarian. We believe most parents want to be good parents.
"Many of our referrals are from families themselves," Rich added. In many cases, she said, at-risk parents were abused themselves and want to learn how not to continue the same pattern.
"They never had a chance to see parenting at its best, and they want to know how to make better choices," Rich said. "We're just giving parents a hand up."
The program's aim is to keep families intact except when the child's safety is threatened.
A volunteer army
Volunteers for the center's intervention work will be solicited from all over north Mississippi to share successful parenting techniques with families in their own communities who are at risk for child abuse. Those who sign up will undergo criminal and child abuse background checks before taking nine hours of initial training.
"We hope to begin our first class November 9," said Jan Sample, executive director of the center. "After that we hope to have new sessions quarterly." Monthly in-service training will also be available, and a program goal is to have satellite centers in towns all over north Mississippi.
A nationwide focus
Dr. Ed North, a Jackson physician, spearheaded a push in 1981 to have child abuse prevention become Exchange Clubs' national focus. Since that successful effort, 75 Exchange Centers have opened across the country, reaching more than 50,000 families.
The human and societal costs of child abuse are high. Some studies show that a disproportionate number of criminals were abused as children. A recent study published by the American Medical Association indicated that two-thirds of teenagers with unplanned pregnancies have been victims of sexual abuse.
"We have some of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the nation, and we need to address that," said Rex Sanderson of Houston, president of Putting Children First's board of directors. "The value (of the center's work) is to prevent child suffering, to prevent unnecessary and unwanted pregnancies and to provide a better life for our children."