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April is Blue Ribbon Month...

Campaign is aimed at child abuse prevention

By Tricia Hopper

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Blue ribbons proudly displayed in April encourage everyone to do their part to prevent child abuse.

The Blue Ribbon campaign began in 1989 with Bonnie Finney. After watching helplessly as her three grandchildren, ages 4 years, 3 years and 18 months, were beaten severely and repeatedly by a family member, she decided to tie a blue ribbon to her car's antenna to represent their bruised and battered bodies. The campaign has since spawned a national awareness for child abuse while also educating people on the types and signs of abuse and neglect.

Louise Davis, associate professor of child and family development with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said there are several types of abuse and neglect, including physical, sexual, emotional and verbal.

"Child abuse is a significant problem in Mississippi, and it's a problem that cuts across all income levels. It can happen in any family," Davis said. "The community should play a vital role in supporting families and children to see that abuse does not occur."

Mississippi Department of Human Services data show that in 2003, more than 17,000 reports of child abuse and neglect were investigated. Also in 2003, 16 Mississippi children died as a result of physical abuse or neglect. Defined as "any mistreatment or neglect of a child that results in non-accidental harm or injury and cannot be reasonably explained," abuse kills an average of three children each day in the United States.

Physical abuse, the most common form, often occurs as a result of unreasonable or extreme punishment. Injuries result from punching, kicking, burning or otherwise inflicting unnecessary pain on a child.

Sexual abuse is more difficult to identify because it is often kept quiet. It is defined as the "misuse of a child for sexual pleasure or gratification" and includes indecent exposure, fondling and intercourse.

A poorly understood yet equally detrimental form of abuse is emotional abuse, which occurs when adults reject, ignore, terrorize, isolate or in some way corrupt a child.

Child neglect is a variant of abuse in which the child is denied age-appropriate needs.

"Every human has a basic right to food, clothing and housing," Davis said. "Neglect occurs when a parent has resources to provide, yet fails to provide those basic needs for the child over a period of time."

Davis said the key to preventing child abuse and neglect is to be watchful and decisive. There are many telltale signs of abuse, and knowing what to look for enables people to make educated decisions on whether or not authorities should be notified.

Indications of abuse range from unexplained bruises and burns, to being afraid to go home. Many times the child will form extreme behaviors, becoming very aggressive or the opposite, very passive.

"Teachers and child-care providers often see the child every day and should be alert to changes in behavior or grades, which indicate something is going on in that child's life," Davis said. "It could be turmoil in the family, but it could be an indication of abuse."

Davis urged caution when determining whether or not a child's situation needs to be reported to authorities.

"Make sure that what you're seeing are repeated occurrences over a period of time," Davis said. "See that you get all the facts because one isolated incident where something appears to be wrong with the child does not mean that child is being abused."

Identifying neglect requires extra sensitivity.

"Oftentimes neglect occurs when a parent can't provide properly for their children," Davis said. "Sometimes children are neglected because parents lack concern for taking care of them."

Davis encouraged people to make a report if they suspect a child is being abused or neglected. Every report is kept confidential, which encourages people to call authorities. Use good sense and judgment in determining whether or not there is abuse and make sure all the facts are known.

"It is an obligation as a citizen to report a suspected case of abuse," Davis said. "If there is no doubt a child is being abused, call the abuse hotline immediately."

The national Child Abuse Toll-free number is 1-800-482-5964. If there is reasonable evidence to suspect abuse or neglect, anyone can report to the Department of Human Services or local child protective service program. Teachers, doctors, social service workers and others in child-related professions are required to report to authorities if they believe there are indications of abuse.

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Released: April 22, 2004
Contact: Dr. Louise Davis, (662) 325-3083

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