On a cold and windy last day of March, about 20 staff members from Marion County Children Services placed blue pinwheels in the ground outside of the agency.
Some were positioned around trees, others circled around the two entrance signs.
In total, 794 pinwheels were planted. The figure represents the total number of child maltreatment investigations MCCS conducted in 2020.
The pinwheel garden is planted for Child Abuse Awareness Month, which is observed annually in April. The event stems from the nationwide Pinwheels for Prevention campaign through Prevent Child Abuse America.
Created in 2008, the organization found that people respond positively to pinwheels, which represents childhood and the organization’s mission for happy and healthy kids.
Elizabeth Moore, a foster care and community engagement coordinator, said most calls are for neglect, specifically substance abuse in front of children.
The numbers for 2020 are lower than what MCCS has experienced in recent years, likely because the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies that monitor child abuse say reporting was down last year due to COVID-19 restrictions that kept children at home instead of in school.
In 2018, MCSS handled 931 safety assessments, which was a record for the agency. For 2017, there were 844 cases. Numbers for 2019 are unavailable since the pinwheel planting was canceled early last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
However, COVID-19 is the reason why the case count was lower for last year, Moore said. Last March, MCCS saw a decrease in calls by 51%. Since children were attending school remotely or in a hybrid model, there were less opportunities for teachers or other people outside the home to report a potential abuse case.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), family members account for just 12% of child-mistreatment reports. At the same time, a December CDC report notes that pandemics and other public health emergencies increase risk for child abuse and neglect because of increased stress and loss of financial and social supports.
Child abuse reports dropped nationally as well. According to a report from The Associated Press, more than 400,000 fewer child welfare concerns were reported during the pandemic and 200,000 fewer child abuse and neglect investigations and assessments were reported compared with the same time period in 2019. The figures represent a national total decrease of 18% in both total reports and investigations.
In Marion County, the top three reporters of child-mistreatment claims are law enforcement, medical professionals, and educational professionals. Despite the pandemic, though, some people remained vigilant in looking out for child abuse.
“We still had educators who were involved,” Moore said. “The educators have been phenomenal. They go out to the homes, taking schoolwork. Additionally, it would be family, neighbors, which is great that we have neighbors that are keeping an eye out. For family…you weren’t able to see your family face-to-face for a long time, so a lot of them were making phone calls or video calls and they were able to report concerns based off that.Get the News Alerts newsletter in your inbox.
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“The fact that we had almost 800 considering how long kids weren’t around mandated reporters it’s pretty insane,” she said.
While calls are increasing again since many students are returning to school full-time, Moore and other staff members are seeing educational neglect, where kids are not coming to school.
“When they call in these concerns, though, it’s not just typically an educational issue,” she said. “It’s also, they’re not coming to school and maybe they have noticed that there are other issues when they do come to school or when they do log in. They’re not getting their basic needs met. We have a lot of families that still don’t have any working parents or caregivers in the home.”
Moore said the pinwheels reflect the impact MCCS has in serving children in the area, as well as showing the community their impact. In addition, she said the project shows the collaboration between the staff members on not only the pinwheels, but in helping children find a stable home.
“It’s pretty extraordinary that we can rely on our community to make those calls, to be the voice, to stand up for kids and really make sure that they’re safe.”
Child Abuse Awareness Month events
In addition to the pinwheel planting, other events MCCS has planned throughout the month include:
- Child abuse and neglect identification training will be held on April 9 from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. The free session is intended to increase community knowledge about child abuse and neglect and the reporting and assessment process. The training will be held at the agency at 1680 Marion-Waldo Road. Masks and social distancing will be in place.
- April 14 is Wear Blue Day. The community can join staff members in wearing blue to show support for victims of child abuse.
- Children’s Champion awards will be given out throughout the month. A new initiative this year, the awards will go to kids from biological, foster and kinship families, as well as community organizations. MCCS will highlight the winners and nominees on their social media pages.