COVINGTON -- A 7-year-old boy died this week after he was allegedly beaten by his mother's boyfriend in Newton County. Next door, in Rockdale, the trial for a man accused of killing his girlfriend's 2-year-old for wetting his pants is taking place. Also in Rockdale, a husband and wife were sentenced this week to life without parole plus 30 years in the beating death of the wife's 5-month-old.
Horrific as they are, these instances are becoming more commonplace.
"The sad fact is that this horror is increasing and most child abuse and neglect is caused by the child's caregivers -- the mother's boyfriend is many times the alleged perpetrator," said Diane Howington, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Rockdale.
In 2011, there were 627 reports of child maltreatment made to Rockdale DFCS. In Newton, there were 830 reported cases, with 93 of those substantiated, in 2011, according to DFCS Director Rachel Rogers. So far in 2012, there have been 94 cases substantiated, she said.
"We know that incidents of family violence increase when families are under unprecedented stress -- the number of children living in poverty has doubled since 2000 in our community," she said. "The programs that are offered by our agency give parents the skills needed to handle stress and anger so that children do not suffer the consequences. We offer in-home parenting classes in Rockdale and Newton which teach about brain development in babies. We have had two babies in our community suffer from Shaken Baby Syndrome that resulted in permanent brain damage in the last six months. We are trying desperately to reach more families and teach parents about prevention."
Howington said the breakdown of the family unit is in part to blame for the increase in violence against children.
Children of single, young mothers without adequate resources, parenting skills and other family members to help with child care are often at risk.
"We just have so many single mothers and they think just because they get in a relationship (they can leave their child with that person.) They don't really know the person, they don't know enough about them to go off and leave their child with them. They're in a desperate situation trying to support their family and doing everything they can do to get their heads above water," Howington said. "If they truly make their children the priority in their lives then every decision they make in their daily life ought to be what is best for that child. What we teach is proactive parenting."
Education is the number one way to prevent child abuse, Howington said. Prevent Child Abuse Rockdale offers several classes open to both Rockdale and Newton residents that focus on managing anger and stress and parenting skills, covering everything from nutrition to brain development to discipline. The organization is partnering with Prevent Child Abuse Newton to provide programming. A class for teenage parents at Eastside High School is upcoming, in addition to an in-home program for young parents age 12 to 25 that already exists.
Howington said Prevent Child Abuse Rockdale is raising money to purchase a doll to demonstrate what happens to a baby who is shaken. "The different parts of the brain that are damaged light up once shaken and the parent can see that they have damaged the eyes, the part of the brain that is memory, etc," she said.
Howington said it's important to report any suspected cases of abuse or neglect to the Department of Family and Children Services.
"A lot of times, people don't report because they think it's not their business, but we have to make it our business. You have to call DFCS if you suspect a child has been abused or neglected. It is your responsibility whether you're a friend, a family member or don't even know the family," she said.
While the mandated reporter law has been expanded to include anyone who works with children, regardless of a mandate, everyone has a moral obligation to report abuse, Howington said. Anonymous complaints can be made to DFCS, she said. DFCS in Rockdale can be reached at 770-388-5025 and in Newton at 770-784-2490.
Howington said children may not always verbally report abuse out of fear, as abusers may threaten their safety or the safety of someone they love.
Kids may act out with behavior problems, have problems at school, use drugs, begin cutting and behaving in other unusual ways. It's up to adults to notice when something is amiss, Howington said, noting that often, people don't want to believe a family member could abuse a child so they turn a blind eye.
Sometimes, children think they've done something to warrant abuse or don't know there's anything wrong with how they're being treated, Howington said, recalling a young girl sexually abused by her father who told her, "I thought that's just how dad's loved their daughters."
Both Prevent Child Abuse Newton and Rockdale are seeking volunteers to help with programming, as well as donations to fund operation and programming costs.
To volunteer with Prevent Child Abuse Rockdale, or to learn more about free parenting classes offered, call 770-483-7333 or visit pcarockdale.org. To volunteer with Prevent Child Abuse Newton, call 678-342-4004. Anyone who would like to make a donation can make checks payable to Prevent Child Abuse Newton and mail to P.O. Box 2933, Covington, GA 30015.