Between 2012 and 2013, about 638,000 children in the U.S. were placed outside their homes for safety, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Last year, the incident of abused and neglected children being removed from their homes in Cherokee County rose 68 percent.
“This is a big increase over last year,” said Court Appointed Special Advocates of Cherokee Country Executive Director Jo Prout. “People are scrambling, trying to figure out why there’s been such a spike.”
This Wednesday, area residents have an opportunity to make a difference, by attending the seventh annual Rally Against Child Abuse on the Cherokee Capitol Square. The event, CASA of Cherokee Country, is designed to raise awareness about child abuse and garner volunteers for the agency.
According to Prout, in 2013 there were 362 abused and/or neglected children in the three court systems served by CASA of Cherokee Country, including Adair County Court, Cherokee County Court and Cherokee Nation Tribal Court. CASA volunteer advocates were able to serve 72 of those children, leaving nearly 300 children without a voice in court due to lack of volunteers.
“We hope this event helps raise awareness of the issues of child abuse and neglect that exist in this and surrounding communities,” said Prout. “We also hope individuals will pause for a moment and consider how they might be able to serve these children by volunteering for CASA.”
Data provided by Prout indicates direct costs for services to abused children total over $33 billion annually. Indirect costs are an additional $47 billion.
“Yet we have one of the lowest number of volunteers,” said Prout. “We’re slowly building that back up; we have three trained who certified last month, and have four who will be trained in May, which will bring our advocate number back up to 18. The more volunteers we have, the more children we serve.”
Prout explained that CASA volunteers often prevent abused and neglected children falling through the cracks.
“They also have less incidents of having a child returned to an abusive situation,” she said. “The abused and neglected children who have been removed and placed in foster care who have CASA advocates spend far less time in foster care, and their cases are resolved much more quickly.”
Participants in the rally will have an opportunity to sign a pledge to stand up against child abuse, place a blue ribbon on a tree, and enjoy a lunch of free hot dogs, chips and soda.
“All these children need a champion, and the volunteers’ sole focus is the best interest of the child,” said Prout.
Laura Garner, executive director of Hope House, partners with CASA each year for the rally.
“This year, we’ve collected donated items to hand out to the kids. Cherokee County Health Department gave us some placemats, and we’ve got child abuse prevention flyers that we’re going to put with them. Hopefully, mom, dad, grandma or the baby sitter will take a look at it and it will raise some awareness.”
This year, 180 children are attending the event.
“We asked the principal at Sequoyah School [pre-kindergarten center] about sending a few to help decorate the tree, and she said she could send all 180 students,” said Garner. “They’ll come down a few at a time in 30-minute increments. It will be great to have so many kids, and we’re hoping for a good turnout. Anything we can do to get our message out.”
In addition to the traditional blue ribbons being tied on the tree, Garner’s daughter, Taelor, a freshman at Tahlequah High School, has made blue origami birds to put on the tree.
“She’s been really busy,” said Garner. “We thought it would be fun for the children to be able to put the birds on the tree with the ribbons. And the blue origami bird is the symbol of hope and peace, which is appropriate.”
The seventh annual Rally Against Child Abuse will be held at 11:30 a.m., Wednesday, April 9, on the Cherokee Capitol Square in downtown Tahlequah. The event includes free hot dogs and beverages. Should it rain, the event will be held at the same time on Wednesday, April 16.