PITTSFIELD -- When Al Bashevkin founded the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition 28 years ago following the closing of Sprague Electric Co., he said the goal was to help bring to residents health and human services with "one voice" -- with the help of the state.
He started the Family Place, where there are case management services and parenting classes. He began UNITY, a youth leadership program and Northern Berkshire Neighbors, which works to increase community involvement.
"The one thing we have in common is we all were children," said Bashevkin, a North Adams native with a background in social work.
For his ongoing efforts, Bashevkin was presented with the Gerard D. Downing Service to Children Award on Wednesday at the annual Unity Breakfast at the Country Club of Pittsfield. The honor was presented by Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless and the Berkshire County Sexual Assault Intervention Network (SAIN) Team.
"Al's more than a good citizen," Capeless said. "He's a community champion."
And with last week's shutdown of North Adams Regional Hospital, Bashevkin's coalition is dealing with families facing hardship again.
"It's hard. We're worried about all of the jobs we lost. We're worried about the health care."
The SAIN Team includes the district attorney's office, Department of Children and Families, state and local police departments, The Brien Center, local pediatricians, Massachusetts Pediatric Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program and Berkshire County Kids' Place.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and locally, child abuse continues to be an issue the Berkshires struggle with.
Between 2012 and the first three months of 2013, the Pittsfield office of the Department of Children and Family Services, which covers Berkshire County, received the second-highest number of child abuse and neglect reports of any office in the state.
Capeless has attributed the high rate to the county's agressive efforts in reporting child abuse and neglect.
Berkshire Juvenile Court Judge Joan McMenemy, a former assistant district attorney, said that fighting child abuse is "one of the most important battles" in society.
"I get to see some of the most bravest acts" by those protecting children, she said. She also gets to see the worst of humanity.
On Wednesday, the justice spoke about an incident where a store clerk noticed a young girl in the store with black eyes and bruising around her neck, being held "too tightly" by the mother. When the girl said she was thirsty, the mother declined to provide her a drink.
The clerk reported the incident to the Department of Children and Families, whose investigators found the girl living in squalor, wearing nothing but a diaper with bruises all over her body, bite marks and a broken wrist. Her mother and her boyfriend were both charged and convicted of felony child abuse.
The boyfriend had only been in the girl's life for three weeks before his arrest. "Had the store clerk not spoken up when he did, the girl wouldn't have survived," McMenemy said.
"The prevention of child abuse is everyone's business," she said.
State Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, son of the late Gerard Downing -- whose memory the award is named after -- said serving children is "what drove my father."
The late Downing was Berkshire District Attorney, a past president of the Catholic Youth Center board of directors and a coach of youth sports. "Being a community member is what really mattered" to him, Downing said.
To bring awareness to child abuse, Capeless said that SAIN Team members would be wearing blue ribbons this month. "We have a moral mandate" to report child abuse, he said. Most child abuse and neglect, he said, "goes unknown."
Child abuse, McMenemy said, "can happen in all walks of life. We all have to be vigilant."
To reach Nathan Mayberg:
or (413) 496-6243
Where to call
If you or anyone you know suspects child abuse or neglect, they can contact the Department of Children and Families in Pittsfield at (413) 236-1800, the Berkshire District Atttorney's Office at (413) 443-5951 or your local police department.