Valdosta Daily Times

September 6, 2010

Lanier tackles child abuse, neglect

County near top of charts statewide, say officials

Dawn Castro
The Valdosta Daily Times

LAKELAND — The Department of Family and Children Services and the Community Partnership for Protecting Children held an open forum Aug. 12 to discuss the child abuse/neglect issues in Lanier County.

A combined number of 47 people from community leaders to citizens and even various organization representatives attended the meeting to both address the issues and develop possible resolutions to the problems.

Inadequate income and substance abuse play major roles in Lanier County, topping the state in reported child abuse and neglect cases.

The county currently ranks No. 1 in neglect and No. 2 in physical abuse, the highest per capita rate in Georgia, according to the state Department of Family and Children Services. At the meeting, participants were presented questions such as, “Why do you think Lanier has the highest rate of neglect and second highest rate of abuse? What is the greatest challenge in the community?” and “Where do you turn for help?”

These questions were presented in written form prior to showing the participants the statistical reports.

Natalie Wall, the interim director for Lanier County DFACS, said the meeting gave the department a chance to meet with the community and lend whatever support is needed. “We are about strengthening families and communities,” she said.

“Taking kids is the last option. Neighbors and families need to step up and help before we have to get involved.”

Joyce Johnson, area coordinator for CPPC, agreed with Wall and added the department has had a negative stigma on it for years.

“We try to get the people to see we are not the bad guys,” she said.

“We don’t want to snatch kids out of their homes.”

Johnson also said that while families and neighbors should be involved, the protective agencies need to be in the loop, too.

“Some families and church members may not know what resources we have available that can help and that’s why we should also be informed of situations.”

The meeting was just the first step in trying to solve the issues within the county. Lanier County Family Connection Coordinator Amy Burton said the surveys allowed them to see exactly what needed to be addressed. Her next step is meeting with community ministers.

“While 55 percent of the people said the best thing about the community is religious support,” Burton said, “others argued the support was only within the church and not in the community. I’m planning to set up a breakfast or luncheon with the ministers to see what can be done collectively.”

Burton was pleased with the feedback collected at the forum, but added things will not change unless people step up, volunteer and be a part of the community.

“It is possible to have some of the things here that are offered in Valdosta and other areas, but the community has to back it,” she said.

The passionate women talked about volunteer opportunities such as Big Brother/Big Sister and other mentoring programs.

Wall said they currently get volunteers from outside Lanier to come in, but they should have their own Big Brothers/Big Sisters volunteers within the community. Another organization that steps in to help the community is Court Appointed Special Advocates or CASA. These volunteers act as the voice of the children. They advocate for a safe, permanent home for each child. Many workers in the child welfare system are often too overburdened to give detailed attention to each child. A CASA volunteer can give the child what others may not have and that’s their time.

The following are some of the suggestions presented at the August meeting:

• Neighborhood Watch Program;

• Educate law enforcement on domestic abuse;

• More recreation for kids;

• More church outreach;

• More resources, i.e. afterschool care, mental-health services, food pantry/clothes closet in Lanier, educate parents.

Lakeland Police Chief Kevin Sparrow was present at the forum and expressed that having a neighborhood watch program is his number one goal. Karen Yawn, representative from The Haven, Pastors Michael Sarasola, John Bracken and Rowan Sirman were also in attendance to offer support and address the citizens’ questions.

The collected statistics at the forum are as follows:

• Gender Attendance: male, 55 percent; female, 45 percent

• Employment: employed, 32 percent; unemployed, 45 percent; retired, 23 percent

• Education completed: high school graduate, 45 percent; college graduate (bachelor), 5 percent; graduate degree, 23 percent

• Children living at home: 55 percent, majority are 12 years and younger

CPPC is a strategic plan represented by citizens, including DFACS workers, teachers, parents, faith-based leaders and members of the judicial system, etc. The plan is to bring everyone together to develop creative ways to prevent or reduce the abuse and neglect in the county.

The CPPC is a nationally recognized plan but has just been organized in Lanier County this past January. Its mission statement: “Keeping Children Safe is Everybody’s Business.”

If anyone is interested in being a part of the CPPC or for other volunteer opportunities, contact Amy Burton at (229) 482-3476.