Meagan Standridge • The Daily Citizen (www.daltondailycitizen.com) • Published Apr 29, 2016
“Today we are going to talk about a very tough topic,” Mary Smith told approximately 120 people gathered at Dalton City Hall on Thursday.
Smith, child abuse prevention educator for the Family Support Council, focused on the commercial sexual exploitation of children and said it is a topic she had avoided for many years because she didn’t think it was an issue in the Dalton, Whitfield and Murray County communities.
“I now know that’s not the case,” she said at the annual Pinwheels for Prevention Ceremony. A similar ceremony was held Tuesday in Murray County.
“Now I’m trying to catch everything I can that’s related to commercial exploitation of children, because it’s here, it’s in our community,” she said.
The annual event is hosted by the Family Support Council in conjunction with the Department of Family and Children Services to raise awareness of the importance of preventing child abuse. The pinwheel is the national symbol for preventing child abuse in America and is the ceremonies are held each April during National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
“The pinwheel represents the playfulness and happiness of a child,” said Smith. “And that’s what we’re wanting to promote is that all children deserve a safe and happy childhood.”
There were 1,608 pinwheels at the Whitfield event, representing the number of reported cases of child abuse or neglect. That is up from last year’s number of reported cases of 1,367.
There were 660 pinwheels at this year’s Murray County event. That number is up from 610 last year.
The event’s focus each year has historically been on child abuse, but during the last few years the focus has been on child sexual abuse. In lieu of a guest speaker, an educational training video was shown called “Darkness to Light.”
“Darkness to Light is a national movement to prevent child sexual abuse,” said Smith.
The film addresses what is child sexual abuse and the commercial exploitation of children. It chronicles the experiences of two victims who were sexually abused as children and who were later commercially exploited.
According to “Darkness to Light,” it is the “normalization” of sexual harm to children that “feeds the demand.”
Smith said this normalization is happening in local middle schools as young as sixth grade.
“One thing we are hearing is that in middle schools kids are sharing pictures, a lot more seductive pictures. Sexual exploitation is becoming normalized,” she said. “They are highly sexualized and what we’re seeing now is that boys are not respecting girls and the girls are feeling like ‘this is the way I get attention.’ They think, ‘They’re not going to like me if I don’t do this.’”
According to Smith, 1 in 10 children are sexually abused, and in 90 percent of those cases it is a family friend or relative that is the abuser.
“It’s not the ‘stranger danger’ that you hear about that’s the problem,” said Smith. “It’s the family friend. It’s people they know and trust.”
And it is the children who have been sexually abused that make up 90 percent of the children who are commercially exploited for sex.
“If you think that 90 percent of those who are involved in commercial exploitation were sexually abused as children, then we have the opportunity to prevent it,” said Smith. “And if we are vigilant about preventing our children from child sexual abuse we’re also, in essence, preventing child commercial exploitation as well.”
The Family Support Council is working with local schools to teach children about recognizing and reporting abuse. Each year it holds a Heroes Campaign to help raise awareness and the schools take part in the fundraising effort. Two schools were recognized for having raised the most money. Coker Elementary School took second place and Eton Elementary School was first.
Sandee Hooper, board president of the Family Support Council, presented the awards. Hooper said many children in the community will be able to go to Camp Aim this year with the money raised. Camp Aim is a camp for children who are victims of sexual abuse.
“It is a two-week therapeutic day camp designed to provide children who are victims of sexual abuse a non-threatening and fun environment in which to deal with their issues of abuse,” according to the Family Support Council’s website (www.familysupportcouncil.com).
If you know of a child who would benefit from attending Camp Aim, you make a referral to the Family Support Council at (706) 272-7919.
It will take a community effort to stop child abuse and exploitation, Smith and Heather Donahue, director of DOC-UP, said.
“Trafficking is something that exists right here,” Donahue said. “I don’t think we can pretend like it doesn’t happen here anymore.”
Eleven men, many from the Atlanta area, were arrested in a sex trafficking sting in Whitfield County in February as part of Operation Watchful Guardians, a multi-agency undercover investigation coordinated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. All of the men came to Whitfield County expecting to meet a child to have sex, officials said. Whitfield County was chosen as the site of the sting because of its proximity to Tennessee.
Donahue said that’s why the training “is so important, not just for people who work with children, but for the community to start recognizing adults who are trafficked.”
“I’m a mom and I think it’s an important issue. I am an ordinary person and I want my kids to know that it takes ordinary people saying no to things like this, that it’s not OK,” Donahue said. “If enough ordinary people get together and say this can not go on in my hometown, I don’t want my children exposed to this or potentially victimized by this, I think we can make a difference.”
According to Smith, if 5 percent of community members are trained in recognizing and reporting child sexual abuse, “then you can make cultural change.”
“In Whitfield County, that tipping point is 3,779 people,” Smith said. “Within a little over a year we have already trained, in Whitfield County, over 3,000 people. We hope that we can begin with our goal of 10 percent as well too. We can only do that with your help.”
If you would like to take the Darkness to Light training, call the Family Support Council at (706) 272-7919 or visit www.D2L.org/training for more information. If you know of a child who has been abused you can call (855) 422-4453 to make a report.