'Step Up for Kids' marks sad milestone — more than double cases of child neglect, abuse in Berkshires
Photo Gallery | Step Up for Kids
PITTSFIELD — This year, to mark April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, advocates from state and local agencies gathered on the steps of Pittsfield City Hall to push the idea of prevention.
The annual "Step Up for Kids" event marks the year's monthly average number of confirmed cases of abuse and neglect in Berkshire County. Last year, there were a mix of 60 pairs of toddler- and adolescent-sized sparkly sandals, multicolored sneakers and little fuzzy boots.
This year, the county's display more than doubled, to 122 pairs of shoes, with one pair representing last year's death of an abused and neglected child. And those are just the cases that are known.
"Frankly, this is disgusting, in my opinion," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, who said people should not think the "bucolic" Berkshires are "immune to the ills of society."
Pointing to the display of shoes and what they symbolize, he said, "This is one month" of abuse and neglect.
Pignatelli was honored on Friday afternoon by the event's co-sponsor, the Children's Trust, with its "Western Massachusetts Champion for Children" award, for his long-term commitment to the children and families of Massachusetts.
He shared an anecdote about a friend who had been, along with siblings, physically and sexually abused as children. Most of those children are still struggling today as middle-aged adults.
That's why he, the other legislators, and child welfare advocates called for more investment of support, programs and outreach for early interventions for families, before the state Department of Children and Families gets called in.
According to state DCF figures, 138,560 cases of child abuse or neglect were reported during 2015 in Massachusetts. Of those cases, 40,166 cases were confirmed to prompt intervention.
"That means more than 90,000 families out there were left to fend for themselves," said Children's Trust Executive Director Suzin Bartley.
She said that the majority of the commonwealth's cases are committed by parents and are cases of neglect — either not feeding children properly or changing their diapers and taking care of hygiene, or failing to bring their kids to school and keeping up on medical care.
"These are parents, just like us, but who are struggling, and we wait until they completely unravel," Bartley said, "and the damage has been done to children."
She added, "This is not common sense, especially when we know parenting is the toughest job there is, and it requires a lot of support and guidance."
Both Pignatelli and Bartley highlighted the fact that dealing with and preventing child abuse and neglect is a community-wide issue. Each speaker added their perspective to the conversation on Friday, including: state Sen. Benjamin Downing, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Pittsfield City Council President Peter Marchetti, president and CEO of Child Care of the Berkshires Anne Nemetz-Carlson, Berkshire Children & Families President and CEO Carolyn Mower Burns, and local parent and Healthy Families program participant Tina Myers.
"The solutions are in our hands, in this community, to these problems," Mower Burns said.
Nemetz-Carlson agreed, and noted that several agencies in the county are working together to offer programs, from social service agency counseling to free family activities, at home visits and parenting classes, among other services.
"Their staffs — home visitors, teachers, child development specialists — work every day to prevent child abuse," Nemetz-Carlson said.
Myers had her first child when she was 22, and described feeling overwhelmed, on top of having a lifelong anxiety disorder.
"I didn't want the negativity to rub off on my daughter," she said. So she sought free help through Child Care of the Berkshires, and found everything from playgroups, where she could socialize and meet with other parents with kids, and WIC support.
When her daughter hit the "terrible threes" age, she took a positive discipline class and received books to help her plan out a response that didn't involve the mother lashing out at her child or having a meltdown herself.
Farley-Bouvier and Marchetti talked about other social issues that impact families and could prompt parents to neglect their kids, from opioid addiction to being a scared or inexperienced teen parent. The delegates also said there needs to be a greater state investment in prevention services and programs up front in the budget.
"We do things pretty backward right now," Downing said of the current funding allocation.
Farley-Bouvier said programs that make healthier, more informed, more attentive parents, help keep families whole.
"That's the healthiest option for those children," she said.
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.
There are five protective factors that have been identified by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, which are used in what's known as a "Strengthening Families Approach," to reduce the risks of child abuse and neglect.
• Parental resilience is the ability to manage and bounce back from all types of challenges that emerge in every family's life. It means finding ways to solve problems, building and sustaining trusting relationships including relationships with your own child, and knowing how to seek help when necessary.
• Social connections include friends, family members, neighbors and community members provide emotional support, help solve problems, offer parenting advice and give concrete assistance to parents.
• Concrete support in times of need, means that families have the support and access to resources to help meet basic economic needs like food, shelter, clothing and health care, as well as care in a crisis.
• Knowledge of parenting and child development means having accurate information about child development and appropriate expectations for children's behavior at every age. Information can come from family members as well as parent education classes and surfing the internet. Parents who experienced harsh discipline or other negative childhood experiences may need extra help to change the parenting patterns they learned as children.
• Social and emotional competence of children means that a family can help a child learn to interact positively with others, self-regulate their behavior and effectively communicate their feelings. Challenging behaviors or delayed development create extra stress for families, so early identification and assistance for both parents and children can head off negative results and keep development on track.