PITTSFIELD — Last year, the Berkshire District Attorney's Office alone took in more than 600 hundred of referrals of child abuse and neglect, and investigated 273 cases of sexual abuse and 95 cases of physical abuse toward children, with 73 kids undergoing medical evaluations.
"This is a lot of work for people here in Berkshire County, but it's being done well, and with compassion," District Attorney David Capeless said to an audience of 50 public servants and workers gathered Wednesday morning at the Berkshire County Unity Breakfast.
The event, at the Country Club of Pittsfield included the 13th annual presentation of the Gerard D. Downing Service to Children Award. The award was created in memory of the late Berkshire District Attorney known to lead by example in addressing the most dire of social problems in a community.
This year's presentation included a sentimental reception of the award by Gerard Downing's son, state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing.
"I think service is a hopeful act," said Downing, who will complete his fifth and final term this year. "It's about saying 'Yes, I see the challenges in our community,' to which people can have one of two reactions: You can shrug your shoulders and say, 'There's nothing I can do about it,' or you can roll up your sleeves and say, 'There's something I can do.' To me, that's the bar my dad set, and we all have to find our own way to do it."
As a public servant, chief law enforcer and father of four, Gerard Downing supported local children and families as a basketball coach, mentor and role model.
The younger Downing's path for advocacy has come through pushing policies and meeting with child abuse and neglect victim advocates who are on the front lines.
"Like his dad, Ben doesn't work with and on behalf of our community's children because it's part of the job, but he does it because it should be done," Capeless said.
Margie Gilberti, area director of the state Department of Children & Families, lauded the senator for attending the department's legislative forums and advocating annually for more resources for caseworkers and offices, and better protective policies for children.
But with humility, Downing returned the spotlight back to the efforts of the agencies that presented him with the Service to Children Award, the members of the Berkshire County Sexual Assault Intervention Network (SAIN). The team includes members of local law enforcement, various pediatric care and medical agencies, and intervention and prevention professionals from the Berkshire County Kids' Place.
There are 400 children that enter the doors of Kids' Place each year who receive services after they disclose sexual and physical abuse. But in addition to helping victims heal and holding offenders accountable, Kids' Place and other agencies are launching an even greater effort for education, preventing recurring instances of abuse, and also preventing the factors that cause it.
Kids' Place Program Director Christa Collier said the community needs to help child victims to "not be seen as damaged goods" and to help non-offending caregivers not feel like they failed.
"We also need to help schools, educators and teachers become more trauma-informed," she said.
Hundreds of thousands of child abuse victims are living and coping in the Berkshires and beyond.
Back in January, the Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services released its "Child Maltreatment 2014" study. Nationally, of the 3.6 million referrals received alleging maltreatment involving 6.6 million children, researchers found that confirmed rates of abuse and neglect rose nearly a percent over five years, from 698,000 cases in 2010 to 702,000 child victims in 2014. A confirmed total of 1,580 children died in 2014 from abuse and neglect.
During April, Child Abuse Prevention Month, the state Department of Children and Families cited the figure of 138,560 cases of child abuse or neglect being reported in Massachusetts in 2015, with 40,166 cases prompting direct intervention.
Capeless noted that while Massachusetts has one of the highest number of reported cases of child abuse in the nation, the commonwealth also has some of the strictest mandated reporting laws in the United States in an "effort to ferret out" offenders. He also cited Gov. Charlie Baker's announcement last fall of new policies for systemwide multiyear DCF reforms to help support caseworkers in addressing frontline issues that result in child abuse.
There are many public issues affecting families and communities that result in child abuse and neglect: poverty, failing mental and physical health, substance abuse and other afflictions.
But, to best serve and protect the Berkshire County's youngest and most vulnerable residents Capeless said, "DCF cannot do the job alone."
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.
Where to call ...
If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call the Child Protection Hotline at 1-800-792-5200. All calls will be kept anonymous.