SILER CITY — To promote National Child Abuse Prevention Month and draw attention to local resources for abuse victims, the Siler City Police Department operated an information booth last Friday at the Walmart Supercenter on U.S. Hwy 64.
“We’re out here today trying to just bring awareness to child neglect and child abuse,” said SCPD Chief Mike Wagner. “So many times there are very simple signs and symptoms that the general public may overlook.”
Besides obvious indications such as bruises, cuts, burns and welts, Wagner said, the manifestations of child abuse or neglect may be more subtle. A child’s behavior and demeanor could change inexplicably. He or she might often miss class or withdraw from usual social activities. Those symptoms are often visible only to adults who know the child well, and without their help the police are powerless to intervene.
“The majority of child abuse that’s reported comes through some type of government organization, either social services, the courts or even law enforcement,” Wagner said. “But I think there are people out there that may suspect it at times but are hesitant to report it or don’t know who to report it to. So we’re here trying to spread the word about how prevalent it is and what our community can do to prevent it or at least investigate it.”
When adults close to the situation neglect to report it, even severe child abuse cases can go unnoticed, Wagner said.
“This year alone, that is 2020, the Town of Siler City investigated eight cases,” he said, “and one of those cases involved a death.”
Most child neglect and abuse cases, however, are not so extreme. Still, anyone aware of child mistreatment — to any degree — should not hesitate to contact the police.
“A lot of people will say, ‘I thought there was something wrong but I didn’t know for sure,’” he said. “Well nothing should stop you at that point from coming to the police department, to a social services worker, or a teacher. In fact, a lot of this stuff gets reported by our education system.”
Teachers and guidance counselors are often the first to recognize signs of child abuse. In many cases, they have been the critical intercessors who prevent abuse from continuing or escalating. In the last year, though, students have learned from home where it’s more challenging for educators to detect signs of abuse and to intervene.
“I think it’s a very strong possibility,” Wagner said when asked if he thinks more abuse cases have gone undetected in the last year than usual. “We won’t know until all the revelations of the pandemic have come out. But you can tell that our youth and young adults are in some kind of mental health crisis already because of the suicides we’ve worked throughout the country. If (the pandemic) is affecting that family dynamic in the household, you can only reason that perhaps there are other dynamics that are affecting the small children.”
Sometimes, victims — and adults close to the situation but powerless to stop it — are slow to report child abuse to law enforcement out of fear the abuser will go unpunished. They reason, and justifiably so, that reporting abuse may only anger the abuser and worsen the situation, according to Chatham’s Assistant District Attorney Kayley Taber.
“When you have someone report a case and then nothing happens, it’s hard to convince people that it’s a good idea to contact authorities,” said Taber, who attended the police department’s Friday event. “So I understand that.”
But Chatham, unlike many counties, has a dedicated prosecutor for child abuse cases — Taber.
“I prosecute all cases involving minor children,” she said. “And I think that can inspire confidence in our residents that we’re going to take this seriously and we will prosecute ... They’re the toughest cases for prosecutors to take, but I’ve been doing this almost exclusively for 14 years.”
Her advice to Chathamites mirrors Wagner’s.
“We need the community to be a part of this, too,” she said. “We all have a duty to report these cases. If you see something, say something.”
To any who fear they might bother the police by reporting even unconfirmed signs of child abuse, Wagner’s admonition is clear: “It’s our job,” he said. “It is critical and incumbent upon all adults who even have an inclination that something might be wrong in the house for a child to make the call. We are equipped and prepared to handle any complaints at all costs.
“Our time is the community’s time,” Wagner emphasized. “They deserve that type of service and we are willing and bound to address those issues. You’re not wasting our time. It’s important.”