Preventing Child Abuse One Step at a Time

By Bonny Osterhage

Every 11 seconds a child in this country is the victim of abuse or neglect, and approximately four children die every day as a result. According to Child Protective Services (CPS), 227 children in Texas died due to abuse or neglect in 2006 alone.

How far would you go to reduce those numbers? How about 35 miles? Prevent Child Abuse Texas (PCAT) is holding its first-ever “Walk to Action” fund-raiser, an ambitious event that will take place Nov. 3 and 4 in Austin. Walkers will start at Mansfield Dam on Lake Travis and wind through the Hill Country before finishing at the steps of the Capitol.

“Walkers will declare their own battle against child abuse when they push off for the first 20-mile leg of the walk,” says Wendell Teltow, PCAT executive director. “They’ll finish two days and 60,000 steps later at the state Capitol to send a message to every Texan that each of us has the power to prevent child abuse.”

Prevention through education is the primary focus of PCAT, which has been fighting child abuse since 1984. Funded solely on private grants and contributions, the organization helps educators, parents and caregivers recognize potential “high-risk” individuals in their schools, neighborhoods, churches, civic centers and other areas.

Although there is no foolproof test, “high-risk” parents often include teenage or very young parents, as well as parents who were abused themselves as children.

“Most parents don’t want to abuse their children,” Teltow says. “They are simply uneducated or ill-equipped to deal with the frustrations that go along with raising children.”

When his daughter was in the third grade, Teltow was invited to speak at career day at her school. As he spoke about nonprofit work and child abuse, a little boy raised his hand and said that he thought he was being abused. He then pulled up his shirt to reveal a scar in the shape of a star on his back. The boy was the youngest of six children and further investigation uncovered that all of the children had the same scars.

The children’s mother was punishing them by heating up a small metal star and pushing it into their skin. Why? Because her mother had done it to her and her body bore the same markings. She didn’t realize it was abuse. She just thought that was the way parents were supposed to discipline their children.

Teltow also sees plenty of teenage parents who haven’t had their own emotional and physical needs met, and as a result have no idea how to meet the needs of a child. They become overwhelmed and frustrated.

Many school districts are taking a proactive approach to the problem by providing young parents with parenting classes and literature on constructive discipline tactics.

More than 700 school personnel and social workers attended the PCAT annual statewide conference in San Antonio last year, where they took part in seminars and workshops on child abuse prevention. Each year, the attendees discuss what they have implemented in the previous year, which techniques and programs worked well and which ones still need improvement.

PCAT also works with the state legislature to build up CPS resources, restore funding for child abuse prevention programs and enact more child-friendly laws.

“By the time it gets to us we are in the repair stage,” explains Harriet Wells, San Antonio assistant district attorney assigned to Children’s Court. “When a child abuse case gets reported the kids are already damaged not only physically but emotionally. The physical damage will heal but the emotional component will last all their lives.”

One goal is to rehabilitate abusers while they are locked up to prepare for their return to society. “We want them to get help because right now we are finding that when they get out they are actually better at (abusive behavior),” Wells says.

To do your part, lace up your walking shoes and join the two-day Walk to Action. Participants need to arrive at 6 p.m. at the Omni Southpark Hotel on Friday Nov. 2 for a rally and instructions. Free lodging will be provided for out-of-towners at the Omni that night.

The walk begins Saturday morning. The clearly marked and scenic route will be equipped with rest stops every two to three miles and all meals, snacks and hotel lodging are included in the $85 registration fee.

Each participant must meet a $1,800 fund-raising minimum by Nov. 2. Anyone who works for a Texas non-profit agency that works toward child abuse prevention will get 25 percent of the money they raise donated to their agency.

“The key is prevention,” Teltow says. “My dream is to put myself out of business.”

Bonny Osterhage is a San Antonio writer and mother of two.
First published October 2007 in Our Kids San Antonio