A child is suddenly absent from school or unprepared when he is present.
A son doesn’t get a much-needed dentist appointment and later needs oral surgery.
A daughter sees her father abuse her mother, or she sees mom and dad using drugs.
“It doesn’t have to be bruises,” says Elizabeth Gore, an adoption social worker with the Johnston County Department of Social Services. “Not all abuse is visible. Not all abuse is obvious.”
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Neglect, emotional abuse, emotional trauma – all are on the spectrum of child abuse.
“If a student shows up without a pencil, most people don’t stop to think about what might be going on at home that led to him not having his supplies,” said Tina Corbett, DSS director.
“There’s always a context; there’s always more to it than people think,” Gore said. “It’s not necessarily abuse, but overall neglect for a child’s needs can be abusive.
“We step in for a variety of reasons; it doesn’t have to be physical or sexual abuse, which is what most people think of.”
This past Tuesday, DSS marked the beginning of Child Abuse Prevention Month. Fronting Bright Leaf Boulevard are dozens of blue pinwheels placed in the ground in the shape of a ribbon. Fluttering in trees surrounding DSS buildings are more blue ribbons. Inside, balloons represent children who have been abused.
Dozens of staff attended the event in blue T-shirts. They work long hours and see things every day others might not see in a lifetime, said Robert Tarpey, a program manager at DSS.
In Johnston County, DSS often finds itself removing children from homes that have become methamphetamine labs. It’s a hard, time-consuming job, DSS workers say.
“By the time we leave a lab with a child, we then go to the hospital, and we can sit at a hospital for a couple hours,” Tarpey said. “And after that, it’s processing all the paperwork and getting the child to a foster home. You could be looking at 12 hours easy, and that’s just one case.” Social workers, he said, are often juggling 10 or more cases.
And it’s no easy task to find a foster home, especially for large sibling groups.
Foster families have to be licensed and need to be a good fit for the particular children in need, social workers say. Sometimes children sleep in a conference room at DSS because not enough foster homes are available.
DSS can find itself searching for foster homes for a number of reasons – parental substance abuse, physical abuse, domestic disputes or abuse, sexual abuse, joblessness, health-care neglect, truancy.
Social workers encourage Johnstonians to learn the signs of abuse and get involved with programs to help prevent it, or to open their homes to victims.
Those who can’t be foster parents can do other things, staff said, including being more understanding of why a student isn’t prepared for class or offering opportunities and activities children otherwise might not be able to afford, like sports teams.
“I think a lot of people feel like they can’t do anything to help these kids because it means they have to be a licensed foster parent,” said Tracy Hadjipetron, a social worker. “That’s not true. If they’re a soccer coach, maybe they could let foster care kids play for free.
“A teacher, maybe they could be more understanding that they don’t have their pencil because maybe that had other things going on that night that the pencil wasn’t the priority. There’s a lot of ways the community could step up and do things for these kids if they can’t make the commitment of being a licensed foster parent.”
And DSS always needs supplies like backpacks for the children it serves. Hadjipetron said.
Child Abuse Prevention Month began in 1989, when a grandmother wanted to take a stand after losing her grandson to abuse. She tied a blue ribbon to her car antenna as a symbol of her commitment. She chose blue so she would never forget the bruised body of her grandchild, Gore said.
“The blue ribbon serves as a memorial to the children who have been touched by abuse and neglect,” Gore said. “It serves as a constant reminder that preventing the maltreatment of children in our community is our responsibility.”
To learn more, go to www.johnstonnc.com/dss.
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett