Before a capacity crowd at the Indiana University Northwest Savannah Center on Friday, government officials and social-service advocates from across Northwest Indiana outlined recent successes and ongoing challenges in the effort to protect the state’s children from abuse, neglect and, in many cases, simple caregiver ignorance of how to safely watch after their kids.
The day’s presentations, breakout sessions and networking opportunities were all part of the 18th Annual Forum on Child Abuse and Neglect, sponsored by the IU Northwest School of Public and Environmental Affairs in conjunction with the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS), Prevent Child Abuse Lake County (PCALC), Dunebrook: Prevent Child Abuse LaPorte County, Mental Health America, The Villages, Parents as Teachers of Lake County, Community Partners for Child Safety, and Lake Area United Way.
“We strive to set a standard of quality service and, frankly, a sense of urgency,” said Jane Bisbee, director of Lake County DCS, during her opening plenary remarks. “One of the things that I push every day … is ‘Where is the sense of urgency? Where is the sense of urgency in doing whatever is right for the child?’ The sense of urgency is a priority for me, and hopefully a priority for those who protect children.”
The morning program featured a series of speakers, including Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura of the Lake Superior Court – Juvenile Division, who delivered brief remarks to an audience of 300 social-service professionals, foster parents and others interested in the welfare of Indiana’s children. Bonaventura said that she has seen a positive effect arising from the combined efforts of government and social-service agencies, foster parents, and volunteer organizations that work on behalf of children in Lake County.
“We have our work cut out for us. We always have,” Bonaventura said. “But every day it seems like we do it a little bit better. I think that, with all of the people in this community, in this audience, and at this front table right here, we’re all going to get it right. That might put us out of jobs, but that’s OK. I’d rather be out on the beach somewhere.”
Despite the general upbeat mood of the forum, the disturbing reality of child abuse and neglect was unavoidable as participants broke up into various workshops to discuss these topics in depth.
In the session “What in the World Happened to this Child?: Foster Parent Disbelief,” IU Northwest Assistant Professor of Social Work Denise Travis, Ph.D., talked to foster parents about the sorts of tragic, frightening and literally inconceivable situations experienced in the home by many of the children who are placed into foster care.
“What’s the worst thing that could happen to a child?” Travis asked the group. She suggested that each person imagine a worst-case scenario. “If you remain foster parents, you are going to have to redefine that vignette in your mind time and time and time again.
“You and me, we can’t even imagine … my brain can’t even go there,” Travis continued. “My mind can’t even take me there. I have no idea what the next horrible situation is going to look like. I can tell you some of the things I’ve seen. And some of the things I’ve seen are worse than your worst right now.”
Yet Travis, who counsels foster children, also explained that removing a child from the home environment, even when it’s necessary, often creates additional confusion, stress and trauma.
“I submit to you that the mere removal of a child from their home is a traumatic experience,” she said. “And we don’t give it enough credit. We don’t give enough credit to the fact that taking somebody out of their home, even when it’s a bad home … it’s still home. Over the last 25 years, I’ve probably dealt with a thousand kids. There have been only two occasions when the child did not want to go home.
“No matter what has occurred to that child, they always want to go home.”
In “It’s My Body,” a session about promoting children’s awareness of sexual abuse, Indiana State Police sex-crimes investigator Jennifer McDonald conducted an educational exercise with students from the West Gary Lighthouse charter school. McDonald, who conducts these sessions regularly in schools throughout LaPorte County, had a frank, easy-to-understand discussion with the kids about what constitutes bad touching and what they should do if it happens to them.
“The biggest problem we have … is that kids your age, if they’ve been touched on their private parts for no good reason or just to play a game, they just don’t like to tell,” said McDonald, who added that embarrassment is the biggest reason children won’t talk about molestation. She then gave a kid-friendly rundown on what areas of the body are considered private, using two anatomically correct dolls for illustration. She referred to the dolls as her “tools,” saying that she uses them to educate students and also to help children who have been molested demonstrate what happened to them.
“Private parts are just another part of our body, and they are nothing at all to be ashamed of,” McDonald told the students.
Afterward, McDonald told the adults in the audience that education programs like “It’s My Body” represent a crucial tool in dissuading child molesters from moving to a particular community.
“For child molesters, that’s their job,” she said. “They may go to work, but this is what they’re good at, this is what they focus on, and they work at not getting caught. Just like you look for a normal job, they look for an opportunity. When these people can punch in LaPorte County or Michigan City and see that there are ‘It’s My Body’ programs, and that every K through 5th grader is going to hear a police officer come and tell them that if somebody is touching you on your private parts, and this is exactly what they are, you tell somebody … that molester might say, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t move to Michigan City. Maybe I should move over here, where they don’t have a program like that, where I have a better chance of getting a victim who’s not going to tell.’”
Other sessions addressed issues like domestic violence, child fatalities, and how to create a safe environment for children. In the afternoon plenary session, James Hmurovich, president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America, encouraged the audience to take what they had learned at Friday’s forum and use it to make a difference in a child’s life.
Attendance for Friday’s forum packed the Savannah Center Auditorium. Participants were treated to free box lunches courtesy of Family Express Corporation, and continuing education credits were granted for participation in each session.
IU Northwest Chancellor Bruce Bergland thanked the audience for turning out in such force on behalf of Northwest Indiana’s children.
“This forum is an event that, as I understand it, has been going on for some time. However, I am quite sure that the attendance today may be setting some form of record,” Bergland said during his brief welcome to the participants. “It’s absolutely wonderful to see all of you here, and, of course, that’s an expression of your commitment to building better futures for our children.”