The South Arkansas Children's Coalition has been busy this month, between travelling to proclamation readings marking April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month and planting pinwheel gardens throughout south Arkansas to raise awareness about child abuse.
On Friday, they'll mark the month in El Dorado with a "balloon release" honoring the children who have been victims of deadly abuse in the State of Arkansas.
"We do the balloon release in memory of the children who have lost their lives in Arkansas to abuse," said Robin Krneta, executive director of the Children's Coalition.
In the first nine months of 2022, Krneta said, 37 children in Arkansas were killed through abuse. That number will likely rise when the state reports on fourth-quarter abuse victim deaths.
Krneta said child abuse is very prevalent, including in Union County. One in four girls will experience sexual abuse before they turn 18, she said, along with one in six boys.
"And that's just sexual abuse," Krneta said. "Child abuse doesn't discriminate on race, gender, socio-economic levels – it is, unfortunately, everywhere."
The South Arkansas Children's Coalition has two branches that work to serve children and prevent abuse from occurring in the first place.
The Children's Advocacy Center, in addition to interviewing children who have been victims of abuse, provides education to churches and youth-serving organizations about recognizing child abuse, as well as to children about how to identify adults who can be trusted.
"Our education specialist goes into the elementary schools in our coverage area and does body safety programs with the elementary students," Krneta said. "And she helps them to identify safe people they can trust if they're ever put in an unsafe situation or something happens to them."
The 13th Judicial District Court-Appointed Special Advocates program, through which volunteers act as advocates for child abuse victims in court, also has an education component.
"With the parents, we try to get them to a place where they can be good parents and have a safe place for their children," Krneta said. "One of our goals is to help the parents to realize and prevent future abuse."
Krneta said people often carry misconceptions about child abuse. While "stranger danger" has been emphasized in child safety programs, most often, children know their abuser, she said. Also, it's not often easy to tell who might be an abuser.
"Over 90% of children abused know, love and trust their abuser. Any time I speak, I stress, watch your children. Never assume – while we hope nothing happens – don't assume that it never will," she said. "I think people would be surprised to know how prevalent child abuse is."
Local residents can help. According to the Arkansas Department of Human Services, if someone suspects or knows of a child being abused, they can call the child abuse hotline at 1-800-482-5964 or visit mandatedreporter.arkansas.gov and provide whatever information they can about the situation.
"If you have a child you know well, and you begin to see out-of-character behavior from those children – usually withdrawal or anger outbursts – that aren't typical for them or their age, being to watch and figure out. We need to look at the why, not the what, with children," Krneta said.
Krneta emphasized that those who report suspected abuse do not need proof of abuse; investigators will follow up on reports before any action is taken.
"(If you call the hotline), you do not need to have proof, you do not need to have seen an event, but you do need to tell what you know, and then at that point, it's turned over to people who do the investigations to find out if it's true or not," she said. "Sometimes people mistakenly think that they have to have proof or know for sure, and that is not the case."
Friday's balloon release is scheduled for noon at the Union County Courthouse. Due to environmental concerns, balloons will not actually be released into the sky; instead, South Arkansas Children's Coalition representatives will bring balloons representing the children who died in 2022 due to abuse.
In the case of inclement weather, the ceremony will be moved to the first-floor lobby of the courthouse.
Krenta said the event is open to the public.
The Children's Advocacy Center currently operates in Union, Ouachita, Calhoun, Bradley, Drew, Ashley and Chicot counties. The Court-Appointed Special Advocates program operates in Union and Columbia counties.
Any churches or youth-serving organizations interested in learning about child abuse prevention or mandated reporter training can contact the South Arkansas Children's Coalition at 870-862-2272 for more information.