‘Our goal is to keep children safe’

Church Watch tackles child abuse prevention
Aug. 28, 2014 @ 04:18 PM

Church leaders met at South Henderson Pentecostal Holiness Church on Thursday to learn about child abuse, what to do to prevent it and what to do if it occurs.

Church Watch, a spinoff of Henderson-Vance Crime Stoppers, sponsored the training. It was formed in 2008 to partner with law enforcement, community service agencies and other organizations to protect church property and members.

The church leaders heard presentations by representatives of the Vance County Department of Social Services, the Henderson Police Department and the district attorney’s office.

Meredith Houchins, supervisor in the Child Protective Services Division of Vance County DSS, said between July 2013 and the end of June 2014 there were 466 reports of child abuse in Vance County.

“Our goal is to keep children safe in their own homes,” she said.

After investigating a report, DSS has several possible courses of action. The best option is to work with the family to remove the cause of abuse.

“Our approach is to build on the family’s strength,” she said.

If a crime may have been committed, a law enforcement agency is notified.

Abuse or neglect may require that a child be removed from the home. Houchins said if a child is to be placed in foster care, they look for family members first.

“We want the child to be with people they know,” she said.

Mirna Gereige, foster care supervisor at Vance County DSS, said there are 23 foster homes in Vance County, but the department always needs more.

Foster home placement is temporary, she said.

“Our goal is for the child to be placed permanently, if not with their biological parents, with other family members,” she said.

Sometimes children get placed in the Masonic Home for Children in Oxford, though Gereige said that’s not ideal.

Still, the department seeks to help people become better parents.

“Our goal is that these situations don’t occur,” said Social Services director Antonia Pedroza. “A lot of us take it for granted that parenting comes naturally.”

She said that is not necessarily so. When it is appropriate, families are required to take parenting classes offered by DSS or Cooperative Extension.

Sgt. Jessica West, of the Henderson Police Department, said law enforcement works hand-in-hand with DSS.

“Reporting suspected child abuse is mandatory for everyone,” she said. “If you know it, if you hear it, you need to contact us. Treat it as if it’s real.”

West called attention to other dangers to children. She said children need to be seated properly in a car: in an appropriate child’s seat and with proper restraint. Infants should never be held on an adult’s lap while the car is moving.

An unrestrained child becomes a projectile if the car hits anything, she said.

She also warned of the danger of leaving children in a car.

“It’s 20 degrees hotter in there,” she said. “I can’t stress that enough. We’ve had five or six incidents within the last few months.”

Allison Capps, assistant district attorney for the 9th Judicial District, expanded on the need to report suspected child abuse.

“Reporting child abuse is the law,” she said. “Not reporting it is a misdemeanor.”

She said reporting child abuse does not necessarily mean the person will have to testify about it. The identity of someone reporting child abuse will be kept anonymous in most cases, she said.

“If you have information I can’t get from any other source, you may be called to testify,” she said. “I can’t work on hearsay information.”

Capps said to get a conviction on child abuse, she has to convince 12 members of a jury to agree beyond reasonable doubt that the person is guilty.

“Do you know how hard it is to get 12 people to even agree on where they go for dinner?” she said.

Capps said the requirement to report child abuse applies to clergy just as it does to everyone.

“There is protected privilege between clergy and members of the congregation,” she said. “But protected privilege does not remove the requirement to report.”

Capps emphasized the importance of cooperation to deal with child abuse.

“In Vance County we’re lucky because the folks at DSS are super proactive at bringing everyone to the table,” she said. “The fact that we all talk, that we’re all on the same page is priceless.”

Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.