Child advocates: Churches can help stem the tide
By Ken Walker
Mount Washington—A recent report that says Kentucky leads the nation in deaths from child abuse and neglect underscores the need for more Baptists to address the problem, said the president of Sunrise Children’s Services.
“I don’t think many of us are aware enough of it,” said Bill Smithwick, longtime executive with the Kentucky Baptist agency. “Many children have had some unusual and abusive things happen to them. As a church, we need to step in.”
Released by the Every Child Matters Education Fund of Washington, the report said 41 Kentucky children died in 2007 in circumstances where abuse or neglect was substantiated. That number was higher than the 26 deaths counted by the state. Federal authorities include situations where abuse or neglect occurred, even if it was not a direct cause of death.
However, Smithwick said no matter which figure is used, there are far too many children suffering mistreatment in the commonwealth.
On average, he said there are 70,000 cases of abuse and neglect reported in Kentucky annually, with more than 7,000 children in out-of-home care today. Private providers such as Sunrise care for almost half of them.
“The issue is there are way too many (children) dying … because of abuse and neglect,” Smithwick stressed. “They’re having their childhood stolen because of parents who won’t or can’t provide for them.”
According to the report, Kentucky’s average of 4.09 deaths per 100,000 children led the nation, followed by South Dakota (4.08), Florida (3.79), Nebraska (3.59) and Missouri (3.51).
“It’s heart wrenching that each day in America, five children will die from abuse and neglect, but what’s worse is that the real number is even larger,” said Michael Petit, president of Every Child Matters.
The report said that a total of 1,760 children across the U.S. died from abuse or neglect in 2007, the most recent year for complete data, according to Every Child Matters.
Economic conditions play a role in the situation. The report referred to a 2005 study by the American Humane Association. It said a child living in poverty is 22 times more likely to be abused than children whose families earn $30,000 or more.
Petit also termed the report a wake-up call for federal lawmakers. He said Congress must work with states to address the causes of abuse and increase support for the agencies that work to stop it.
Smithwick said that during Sunrise’s last fiscal year, which ended Aug. 31, the state reduced its per-diem reimbursement rates by 6 percent over a five-month period.
Although the old rates were later re-established, the cuts reduced Sunrise’s revenues for the year by about $265,000, he noted.
State funds cover only about 75 percent of the costs of care for the children Sunrise helps. The gap between Sunrise’s costs for residential treatment and the reimbursements average $48 per day per child, with foster care shortfalls averaging $20 per day.
Smithwick said budget cuts for the state’s Department of Community-Based Services, which oversees the children in Sunrise’s care, affects the quality of that care.
“The best of workers can’t provide the kind of time (children) need because they’re so overburdened and understaffed,” he explained. “If we had more money for prevention, we could keep more kids in their homes.”
Laura Chowning, community development coordinator for Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky, said churches could lead the way in prevention efforts.
“It would be a tremendous opportunity to see the church follow (Christ’s) Greatest Commandment,” Chowning said, referring to Matthew 22:36-40 which states that believers are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart ... and to love your neighbor as yourself.”
With education and resources, congregations can “find the needs of individuals and help meet those needs so families are supported during stressful times,” she said. From that point, Chowning said, churches then may realize they wish to do more, such as providing the kind of services available at Imani Baptist Church in Lexington and Emmanuel Baptist Church in Marion (see story on page 1).
Smithwick noted that Kentucky Baptists continue to help Sunrise in its mission by making financial contributions, volunteering at the residential programs and helping make holidays and birthdays special for all of the children in its care.
In addition, Kentucky Baptists raise money through its “Mile of Pennies” initiative, sponsor children at Christmas and support the Thanksgiving Offering, a major source of funding.
“Without private donations we couldn’t stay open, but it’s been running tight,” Smithwick said. “We need more private donors to care for these kids.”
Those numbers include nearly 375 children who receive out-of-home care through Sunrise. As of Oct. 28, that included 143 in residential treatment and 228 in foster care.
Two of Sunrise’s programs are family initiatives that seek to prevent abuse and neglect through a Medicaid program called Impact Plus. The Danville operation provides case management. Workers there help connect parents with community-based services, such as counseling, school aid or enrolling children in the state medical insurance program.
The Owensboro office goes a step further, also providing in-home instruction, such as teaching parenting skills, discipline and budgeting lessons.
Such community resources hold families together, Smithwick suggested. However, sometimes more intensive services are required, such as substance-abuse treatment, he added.
“The point is to keep children in their homes when possible,” Smithwick emphasized. “Serving families retroactively often means long legal processes, institutional care and the prosecution and incarceration of offending adults—all of which costs a lot of money.”
With additional reporting by Dannah Prather
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"Faith communities ideal places to educate, equip and encourage parents"
Pastors see both rewards and risks in prevention ministries|
By Drew Nichter
Marion—In December 2006, Rob Ison was driving through a drug-infested Crittenden County neighborhood when he felt a sharp pain in the side of his head. A few moments later, he passed out.
Ison spent the next few days in a hospital bed recovering from a minor stroke. While that may not seem unusual, consider this: he was only 33 years old at the time.
Rob Ison is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Marion, a rural, Western Kentucky town struggling with a community-wide drug problem.
At the time of his stroke, Ison was helping lead Arms Around Families, started by Emmanuel Baptist to help families deal with a number of destructive issues, namely substance abuse, domestic violence and child abuse and neglect.
The program was “at its peak,” he said, in late 2006, helping dozens of individuals each week break the cycle of abuse and violence in their homes.
The stroke, Ison maintained, “was directly connected to the stress of that specific ministry. So, I kind of learned the hard way.”
All Christians wear a bullseye that the enemy is aiming at, Ison said. For pastors and Christian leaders, that target is even larger.
“If you’re going into the enemy of God’s camp … with those who are perpetuating a culture and a lifestyle through drugs and through abuse, the target’s even bigger than normal,” Ison explained.
But for those church leaders like Ison and Lexington pastor Willis Polk who stand in the gap for children and families in crisis, such work is not only rewarding, it’s biblically mandatory.
“Jesus told us about the least among us. He talked about the vulnerability of children,” Polk said. “It is based on Scripture. ... If we’re going to live out our New Testament marching orders and all, we can’t overlook what the Master said. … We cannot neglect that vulnerable population.”
It’s all about “emulating Jesus to them,” Ison stated.
With the recent news that Kentucky leads the nation in the rate of child deaths from abuse and neglect—perhaps as many as 41 children in 2007 (see related story on page 1)—it begs the question: What is the church’s role in preventing child abuse and neglect?
“The Lord has invested His Holy Spirit in us that He might reveal Himself through us,” Ison emphasized.
In many cases, he added, it’s not about solving children’s problems, it is about loving them, letting them know they are cared for and that they can feel safe. “A lot of times I think that’s what (God) does—He just lets them feel safe,” Ison said.
Emmanuel’s Arms Around Families started four years ago. Marilyn Belt, who directs the ministry, said the program is developed to curb high-risk behaviors in families. That includes abuse, neglect, substance abuse and domestic violence.
Individuals or families often are ordered to attend the 12- to 16-week program by a family court judge or state social worker. Arms Around Families involves three main components: parenting classes, a children’s program and substance- abuse recovery.
The parenting feature of the program focuses on those aspects “that would make a healthy, safe, appropriate parent,” said Belt, a social worker with the state’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services in neighboring Union County.
The curriculum helps parents identify behaviors or circumstances that could lead to abuse and neglect, and teaches appropriate discipline. Volunteers also instruct parents in basic nutrition, hygeine, financial planning and other aspects of caring for children, Ison noted.
Keeping families intact
On the other side of the state, a similar program is helping Lexington’s struggling families stay together.
Imani Baptist Church and Pastor Polk have coordinated the SKY (Strengthening Kentucky) Families program for seven years now. The class-based program is under the umbrella of Imani’s Family Life Center, a nonprofit entity of the church.
SKY Families deals almost exclusively with parents who, for a variety of reasons, have had their children removed from their care.
“Our focus is on helping them settle issues and develop stronger family units, so that kids can be brought back to the family,” Polk said.
SKY Families is funded by Kentucky State University’s cooperative extension department and also works in conjunction with Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky in Lexington. Often, Polk pointed out, parents who are referred to the Imani program have been cited for child neglect. That can take different forms, and often, Polk said, the parents he comes in contact with were not aware they were breaking the law.
Through social workers directly involved with Lexington’s family court system, families are referred to the program. Polk said judges typically send parents they believe can change and are committed to regaining custory of their children.
He said that when parents discover why they are chosen to participate in SKY Families, “they let their guards down.”
The 12-week program begins with an orientation and ends with a graduation. In between, parents attend a series of classes focused on effective parenting strategies, discipline, family health and communication, and maintaining relationships.
Polk said he takes a hands-on approach to SKY Families, leading as many as three sessions including the orientation. After parents have received their certificate of completion, they get a final word from the pastor.
“I tell them how to go back (to court) and present themselves to the judge,” Polk said, “and more times than not, they get their children back.”
Polk noted that all too often struggling families get caught in the revolving door of the family court system. He said that SKY Families is helping eliminate that cycle and build stronger families.
Asked why his church takes on the role of protecting children, Polk said the answer is simple: Jesus said so.
And for many church leaders who accept such a mission to protect children from those who would do evil to them, Pastor Ison warned: Be prepared to put on the armor of God.
“You’ve literally turned up the heat on the enemy’s desire to frustrate you and to work against you,” he noted.
Ison called a program like Arms Around Families “so spiritually draining” that maintaining a close, personal and daily dialogue with Christ is “absolutely critical” and the only way to keep going.
But while the pastor warns against all that can go wrong with social ministries like Arms Around Families, he said that individual success stories are what keep him going in his ministry to hurting children.
“It’s not a hopeless situation because God is able to deal with individuals and do miraculous things that nobody else can do,” Ison said.
He stressed, however, that there is a long way to go.
To make his point, Ison borrowed a missionary anecdote of a grandfather and grandson walking along the beach where hundreds of starfish have washed ashore. The grandson picks one up and throws it back into the water. As he bends down to pick up another one, the grandfather tells him he’s foolish for doing so because he’ll never be able to throw them all back. As the grandson hurls another starfish into the ocean, he replies, “Yes, but it sure does make a world of difference to that one.”
After telling the story, missionaries often ask, “Are you the grandfather or the grandson?”
Ison said: “I’m the guy who wades out in the water and tries to figure out why all these starfish are washing up on shore.
“I think the (social services) system is made to throw back starfish, and nobody is really getting out in the water.”
Ison said he often prays, “Lord, where are we missing the mark with the adults that is causing these problems? Because we’re never going to be able to throw back all the starfish. So, let’s stop them from coming up on shore in the first place.”