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One serious local problem that's seldom talked about

April 15, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

If there's one thing I've learned in 30 years in the newspaper business, it's this: There's nothing like a cute little child to attract folks' attention and warm their hearts to the point where they'll donate to a cause.

But you won't see any bright-eyed poster children this coming Saturday, when the Parent-Child Center of Washington County holds its annual telethon on WHAG-TV 25 from 1 to 4 p.m.

That's because the center's mission is the prevention of child abuse and clients' names and faces must be kept confidential.

But just because you can't see them, don't assume that they don't exist. They do.

In 2000, Washington County had the third-highest child abuse and neglect rate in the state, according to the Maryland Kids County Factbook for 2001.

In fiscal 2002, more than 1,980 cases of child abuse and neglect were reported to the Washington County Department of Social Services' Child Advocacy Unit, up about 8 percent from the year before.

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Why is it happening? There are a variety of reasons. Child abuse is "learned behavior." Those adults who were abused as children are likely to abuse their own children in moments of stress.

Another reason: Teen pregnancy. Washington County Health Officer William Christoffel told The Herald-Mail last year that one of every 10 of the county's 18- and 19-year-old females is giving birth.

Such young parents often have no understanding of how to parent, which can lead to unintended abuse and/or neglect.

The Parent-Child Center has taken a pro-active approach to helping those young mothers with two programs.

The first is "Right From The Start," which matches teen mothers with volunteer moms who teach them the importance of nurturing their babies and things like proper nutrition and cleanliness.

To deter other young women from getting pregnant, the center put together a second program called "Teen Voices, Teen Choices."

In this one, actual teen mothers go to school assemblies and tell other young women how difficult it is to be a mother when you're barely out of high school. I have seen the program and watched as the young mother of a hyperactive child cried because her life seemed overwhelming.

Other programs match volunteers with families who've been involved in abuse, or those at risk of abusing their children.

The volunteer meets regularly with the family, teaching parenting practices that don't involve physical or mental abuse and acts as a "safety valve" when the parents are under stress.

Another program matches volunteer advocates with teens who've gotten involved with the court system.

I have a keen interest in the telethon's success because for the past six years I've been a member of the board. In that time we've moved from cramped offices downtown to 998 Potomac Ave., the one-time home of the United Way. Through the generosity of Certain-Teed Products, new siding and windows have rejuvenated the old house.

The center's latest venture is bringing a program called EPIC directly to doctor's offices in Washington County. Through EPIC, both physicians and staff learn the signs of child abuse and what their legal obligations are when they see them.

I am proud of what we've done, even though there were times that it seemed that progress came inch-by-inch.

So remember this: Child abuse is like a nest of termites. Just because you don't see it doesn't mean it isn't there.

Stopping it requires retraining people who were raised to believe that being beaten with the buckle end of a belt was an okay way to discipline a child. It means teaching those parents that telling their children that they're "stupid" or "no d------ed good" hurts just as much as a slap in the face. Verbal abuse also affects a child's life forever, in some cases, and not for the better.

Most people don't want to think about all this. I agree it's an unpleasant subject. But somebody has to, for the children's sake. Tune in to the telethon this Saturday to see how, or contact the center for more information, by calling 301-791-2224. Thank you.

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