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CHILD ABUSE AWARENESS MONTH: Share. Show you care. Prevent child abuse.

By Elena Cawley

Below is part 4 of a 7-part series written by Elena Cawley and published by Thunder Radio in an effort to bring awareness to child abuse awareness and prevention in our community.

It’s extremely important to promote awareness by educating everyone on what signs to look for and how to report abuse, according to Leanne Eaton, director of Youth Services for Coffee County. Eaton has seen the effects of child abuse. She has seen children who became withdrawn or resistant to discuss their home life with her. Their grades would drop, or they would lose interest in school activities. She has seen athletes stop playing due to fear of others seeing physical signs of abuse. Often, children are afraid to report that a parent or guardian has inflicted physical abuse for fear of what will happen to them—either being punished when the abuser is approached by investigators or being removed from their home by a Child Protective Services worker, according to Eaton. She has received many calls from teachers who are concerned that a student may be a victim of physical or sexual abuse.

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What are some of your responsibilities?

I am the director of Coffee County Youth Services. There are many different responsibilities associated with this position. My main obligation is the supervision of the juvenile court probation office for Coffee County. I am responsible for making sure that all of the cases that are ordered informal adjustment or court probation through Coffee County Juvenile Court are assigned to a youth services officer and that they receive appropriate screenings and services based on their individual case plans which are rendered from the screenings. Supervision could include many different components such as monitoring school attendance, paying fines, court costs, or restitution, making referrals to DCS (Department of Children’s Services) for in-home services, making referrals for mental health or substance abuse counseling, and sometimes helping families find help with basic needs of life. I assist all three local school systems on truancy issues by holding truancy board meetings throughout the school year. I am actively involved in the Tennessee Juvenile Court Services Association and am a past Grand Division Coordinator for the middle Tennessee region. I have served on the Coffee County Anti-Drug Coalition board of directors for many years. I also serve on the local Child Protective Investigative Team, Child Fatality Review Team,  and the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team.   

How long have you served as director of Youth Services?

I have been the director of Coffee County Youth Services for the past 23 years. I spent the seven years before that (in the same office) as child and family resource coordinator, a youth services officer, and the assistant director of coffee county youth services.

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As part of your job, do you see the effects of child abuse?

I have seen the effects of child abuse. During the time when I supervised a caseload of juvenile probationers, I would occasionally notice that a child would become withdrawn or resistant to discuss their home life with me. Their grades would drop or they would lose interest in school activities. I have seen athletes stop playing their sport due to fear of others seeing physical signs of  abuse. Often, children are afraid to report that a parent or guardian has inflicted physical abuse for fear of what will happen to them—either being punished when the abuser is approached by investigators or being removed from their home by a Child Protective Services worker. I have received many calls over the years from teachers who are concerned that a student may be a victim of physical or sexual abuse. Of course, in the state of Tennessee everyone is a “mandated reporter” of child abuse and neglect and has an obligation to report such to the proper authorities. Failure to report any suspected case of child neglect or abuse is a violation of the law and is a Class A misdemeanor. Some people who are aware of abuse are hesitant to report for fear of retaliation, but the reporter has the right to remain anonymous.

When it comes to child abuse, have you noticed any trends?

Sadly, I have seen a trend of increasing numbers of sexual abuse cases in our county. It also seems like more of the perpetrators are family members or known adults than strangers.

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Often, child abuse is not discussed. Why?

With the sensitivity of the subject, many shy away from the discussion. Nobody wants to see children taken away from their families, but sometimes the abuser lives in the child’s home– sometimes a parent or sibling. I remember when I first started working with children I would worry that I was misreading the signs of abuse. For example, I would think some children keep bruises or maybe they are accident-prone. I was fortunate to have great mentors in the court system who helped me navigate what to report and how to make those reports.  

What are the biggest challenges, when it comes to battling child abuse?

Perception is a big challenge when it comes to battling child abuse. Some children are so accustomed to being physically abused that they don’t realize that it’s not normal. Also, some parents were abused by their own parents and see no problem with the way they “discipline” their child. Another challenge has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which physically took children out of the schools for a few months last school year and some children are continuing to stay on a virtual student status. Teachers, school administration, school staff, and daycare workers are on the front lines in many ways when it comes to abuse reporting. They can often detect a change in the child’s demeanor, grades, attendance patterns, etc., which can all be affected when a child is suffering some form of abuse.

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What are some things that can be done to help battle child abuse?

I think it is extremely important to promote awareness by educating everyone on what signs to look for and how to report abuse. Many people are surprised to know that child abuse can be reported online as well as by phone.

Anything else you’d like to share about child abuse and how people can help?

I have always felt that it is extremely important for adults to provide children with a space where they feel safe to talk. Building a relationship with a child or student takes time, but kids need to know that they are heard and respected. We may be the only person a child feels safe talking to. Never fail to report information that a child gives that indicates possible abuse. There are authorities who are obligated to investigate such allegations and are trained to screen those situations and handle them properly.

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