By Heather Mullinix
There were 1,325 victims of child abuse in Cumberland County in 2012. At least, that's what was reported.
Advocates in the effort to end child abuse worry there could be even more children suffering from abuse or neglect, and countless more at risk for becoming abused.
"You could likely double that number for those cases not reported," said Denise Melton, director of the Cumberland Children's Center House of Hope, during the annual Cumberland County Blue Ribbon Ceremony for the prevention of child abuse.
Child abuse can include physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or failing to provide for a child's basic needs, such as food, water and shelter, or taking care of educational needs.
If you suspect a child is being harmed, reporting those suspicions can help protect the child and get help for the family. Anyone can report suspicions of child abuse and, in fact, Tennessee law requires anyone who knows or has reasonable cause to suspect a child has been abused, neglected or sexually abused to report that to the Department of Children's Services or law enforcement. A report can be made to the statewide DCS Central Intake hotline by phone, fax, letter or online. The toll-free hotline number is 1-877-54ABUSE. The website is reportabuse.state.tn.us.
In addition, those suspecting a child may be at risk for abuse are encouraged to contact the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department's DEAR Team, which works to aid Drug Endangered and At-Risk children in the community.
The DEAR Team works to increase communication between law enforcement and the Department of Children's Services, as well as the school system, medical community and others in the community, to identify children and families and ensure a child doesn't slip through the holes in the safety net.
Deputy District Attorney Gary McKenzie shared a case that started the communication between law enforcement and DCS, sharing the tragic story of Hope Manning, a five-year-old girl who died from injuries she received at the hands of her mother's live-in boyfriend in 2002.
"After that case, we asked ourselves how that could have been prevented," he said said. "It haunts many of us to this day."
The sheriff's department and DCS began meeting weekly to communicate more about cases and work together.
Several years ago, the state held conferences and urged adoption of protocols and procedures that helped keep stakeholders in the loop on cases of child abuse and neglect. Cumberland County was the first and only county to adopt those protocols.
"Cumberland County was already ahead of the game," said William Benson, assistant director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's drug investigation division.
"Often, in law enforcement, we think our job is to catch the bad guy, but the first word [in the motto Protect and Serve] is protect. We need to protect the good guy, and so many times, that's children."
That includes keeping a sharp eye when on the scene of an arrest. In Colorado, studies found 70 percent of children identified as drug endangered were not on the scene of an arrest. But Benson said investigators could keep a look out for toys, high chairs, bottles or evidence of children in a home.
In Cumberland County, if that evidence were found, a DEAR Team officer would be dispatched to investigate from that aspect and work to ensure the children were connected to the Department of Children's Services and other community resources, as needed.
Cumberland County will also become a testing ground for communications software that would help inform DCS of felony drug arrests. Cumberland County was one of five counties in the nation selected to receive the DECSYS software.
"We'll start it here and see how it works and try to expand it across the judicial district and the state," Benson said.
Cumberland County is also sharing its DEAR Team training with other counties in the state, hosting a training this past week that not only included participants from Cumberland County, but from eight other counties, as well.
"This needs specific training has been spearheaded by Sheriff Burgess," Benson explained.
Training included interrogation and interviewing, crime scene photography, effects of drug exposure in the womb and more.
Benson said the first time he met the DCS caseworker in Cumberland County, he thought he was an employee of the Sheriff's Department.
"They were working so closely together," Benson said. "That's what is needed. All stakeholders want to work together. And this program brings the whole stakeholder community together."
Chad Norris, special investigator with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department, said Sunday, "Many times, in law enforcement, we think our job is just to lock people up. This goes further and provides help to families that may be struggling."
That help can take a variety of forms, including connecting parents to agencies that can provide counseling help, assistance with job search or upgrading job skills or help with basic needs. Parent education, home visitation and parent support groups often provide the support parents need to learn to parent effectively and safely.
Also during the Blue Ribbon Ceremony, the community paid tribute to Joyce Ferry, of Lake Tansi, who passed away Oct. 22.
Ferry had been involved in community work through the Lake Tansi Exchange Club, serving as president twice, and was a state director of the National Exchange Club. The Exchange Club, through its support of the Holland J. Stephens Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse and the national organization, works to prevent child abuse in communities through parent education, home visitation and community education programs.
Her husband, Mike Ferry, was presented a plaque in her honor prior to those present releasing blue balloons to represent children who were victims of child abuse in Cumberland County in the preceding year.
Afterwards, the community was invited to have lunch and enjoy a variety of educational and fun booths for children and adults.