Children’s Advocacy Center on front lines in battle against child abuse
The news coming out of a recent meeting at the State Capitol on the welfare of the state’s children isn’t good, but it is appropriate the meeting took place in April, Child Abuse Awareness Month. In the latest ranking of how states take care of their children, Louisiana ranks 49th, a spot it’s held the past five years.
That was not what Toni Bankston, executive director of Baton Rouge Children’s Advocacy Center, wanted to hear.
“Every year we see an increase in the number of children impacted by trauma,” she said. “One in four girls and one in five boys will be victims of sexual abuse … We’re pretty confident the number for boys is under-reported.”
Working with children impacted by sexual trauma, physical abuse and other injuries of the mind and body, BRCAC’s mission is to set those children on a “solid path to healing and justice,” Bankston said.
She said childhood trauma and adverse experiences may be the most important public health epidemic right now. It affects the structure and architecture of the developing brain and is linked to lifelong physical and mental illness.
“Many people don’t realize the link between trauma and increased chances of addiction, suicide, incarceration and mental disability,” Bankston said.
Trauma can be any event that, when witnessed or experienced by a child or adolescent, is extremely distressing. In addition to sexual and physical abuse, trauma includes exposure to violence, natural disaster, house fire, car accident or loss of a significant loved one.
“We’ve seen an uptick in the number of children impacted by homicide, domestic violence, physical violence the past few years,” said Bankston. “Then you had the flood in 2016 and the police shootings … All of these things have adversely affected our youth.”
Making people aware of the signs of abuse as well as the fallout is the main goal of Child Abuse Awareness Month. Getting that message out helps BRCAC fulfill its mission.
“I wouldn’t do this job if there was nothing positive happening,” Bankston said.
BRCAC has launched a new website, batonrougecac.org, that provides information on prevention, reporting and volunteer opportunities as well as links to other services, including a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week hotline, 1-855-4LA-KIDS. The agency also has several new partnerships, including one with the Louisiana Department of Education.
All teachers and school personnel are now mandated to report abuse, Bankston said. The partnership has helped teachers become more informed about trauma, provided educational materials to assist them in talking about abuse and even changed the way classrooms are set up.
“It’s all part of a package to better educate our children,” said Bankston.
She added that Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome “embraces providing trauma information to the community.”
“We’re also educating law enforcement and clergy on how to better recognize and report trauma,” she said.
Reporting suspected abuse is key, Bankston said, pointing out that secrecy allows abuse to flourish.
“We have to break the silence,” she explained. “It’s hard to accept that abuse happens, but we have to take our blinders off. If you see something that looks suspicious, say something. It’s better to act than to read about a tragedy that could have been prevented in the next day’s headlines.
“When we talk to the children who come to us for services, there’s always somebody they tried to tell. You could be the person who saves a child’s life … I wish we could make everyone a mandatory reporter,” Bankston said. “We have an epidemic, and we have to deal with childhood trauma and abuse with the same caution and seriousness as we do any other epidemic.”
But that takes money.
Louisiana is one of few states that provides no funding to its Children’s Advocacy Centers, Bankston said.
“That’s one of the reasons Prevent Child Abuse Louisiana closed at the end of 2018 — no funding,” said Bankston. “You have to raise money to keep operating.”
BRCAC raises funds through its Celebrity Waiters event, which is set for July 17 at the L’Auberge Event Center. Its success has allowed the agency to expand its footprint.
“We just bought a new building two doors down from where we are now,” said Bankston. “Once we get it up and running, we’ll handle forensic investigations in one location and do all therapy programs from the other. What we need most right now is corporate sponsors willing to commit to multiple years of funding … Where we invest our time and funds really needs to be on our youth.”
Signs of child abuse:
- Sudden changes in behavior or school performance
- Does not receive help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents’ attention
- Learning problems (or difficulty concentrating) that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes
- Always watchful, as if preparing for something bad to happen
- Lacks adult supervision
- Overly compliant, passive or withdrawn
- Comes to school or other activities early, stays late and does not want to go home
- Reluctant to be around a particular person
- Discloses maltreatment
— Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services