Shining the Spotlight on Abused, Neglected Children

As the old man walked the beach at dawn, he noticed a boy ahead of him picking up starfish and heaving them back into the sea. When he asked the boy the purpose of the effort, he answered that the stranded starfish would die if left until the morning sun. “But the beach goes on for miles and there are millions of starfish,” countered the old man. “How can your effort make any difference?”

The boy looked at the starfish in his hand and then threw it into the safety of the waves. “It made a difference to that one.”

 -- Adapted from “The Stafish Thrower” by Loren Eisely

By Laurie A. Kaiser

A mother confesses to drowning her toddler. A baby dies after his mother’s boyfriend shakes him to death. A woman is charged with capital murder for beating her grandson to death. Such horrific abuse cases – all of which occurred in San Antonio in recent months – feel too weighty to grasp.

Stories such as these that lead the nightly news are only bolstered by seemingly overwhelming statistics. Last year, Child Protective Services (CPS) confirmed 4,718 cases of child abuse and neglect in the San Antonio region, a jump of almost 1,500 cases over 2004. Yet, numerous professionals and volunteers are somehow wrapping their minds around this awful reality – and doing something about it.

One Local Miracle

The effort began with awareness. When the public found out about Jovonie Ochoa, the 4-year-old boy who starved to death on Christmas Day 2003 at his grandparents’ home, their outrage fueled the formation of the Bexar County Blue Ribbon Child Abuse Task Force and generated a donation of more than $1 million from the Goldsbury Foundation. And the Center for Miracles was born.

The Center, housed in the Christus Santa Rosa Professional Pavilion, employs three part-time physicians, a nurse, a social worker and a counselor. Since the doors opened in May 2006, they have evaluated more than 500 children referred by CPS due to suspected physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect. 

 “The advantage we have is that we are not CPS or the police, and the children realize the physicians are here to help them,” Kellogg says. “They (and their parents) often share information with us here that perhaps they wouldn’t share in another place.”

The staff also works to prevent abuse through education.

“We are trying to find way to educate parents about normal child behavior --- toddlers refusing to cooperate, for instance,” says Kellogg, who also heads up the Child Abuse Division at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. “When parents are able to see these kinds of behaviors as normal, they say to themselves, ‘This isn’t my fault,’” she notes. Also, parents sometimes feel they should never get angry with their children. “But anger is a reality of life. We want parents to recognize that when they are angry or frustrated, they need to put their child in a safe place and walk away until they calm down.”

Society sometimes complicates things by sending parents mixed messages “Corporal punishment is allowed in 70 to 80 percent of San Antonio schools,” Kellogg says. “If we use a paddle at school, how can we hold a parent who hits his child with a belt at home accountable?”
Despite the gray areas and grim statistics, Kellogg says she feels more hopeful than ever. She notes progress both across the country and here at home. The American Board of Pediatrics now recognizes child abuse as a sub-specialty in pediatrics.

“The field is changing every month,” Kellogg says. “Research and knowledge is improving all the time. So much in this field is evolving.”

In San Antonio, agencies are collaborating through the city to make a difference. And in honor of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, the Center helped organize a campaign that includes the Spurs/Ashley Furniture Homestore 5K walk/run, the H-E-B Family Fun Day, a picnic, a health fair and a march.

“We are reaching a population we weren’t serving before,” Kellogg says. “We are reaching more families in meaningful ways.”

Laurie A. Kaiser is the former editor of Our Kids
Originally published April 2007 in Our Kids San Antonio.