Pinwheels of all different colors are circulating around the community this month, as local county agencies raise awareness of child abuse in order to prevent a growing problem in a social media age that allows easier access to everyone — including children.
This Friday, April 15, will be Wear Blue Day, raising awareness as the color blue, specifically in the form of ribbons and pinwheels, is used to denote Child Abuse Prevention.
“We’re asking everybody to do that,” said Shannon Blanchard, director of the Sampson County Child Advocacy Center.
Additionally, a pinwheel garden will be planted at 4:30 p.m. this Monday, April 18, in the area of the “Milling Around” art piece in downtown Clinton, an event sponsored by the Sampson County Department of Social Services and the Child Advocacy Center.
“We’re hoping to plant around 500 pinwheels,” said Blanchard.
Likewise, Sunday, April 24, is Blue Sunday, a way to take that awareness campaign into local churches. With Blue Sunday, people are encouraged to have their pastors or special speakers offer a few words about child abuse prevention, as well as possibly take up an offering toward the cause, potentially assisting the Sampson County Child Advocacy Center.
The extensive awareness campaign has been highlighted by “Pass the Pinwheel,” a social media challenge that has exploded on the center’s Facebook page.
“The social media campaign has really done well. We have pinwheels that are going around the area. We made it a competition between all of the disciplines that work with the Child Advocacy Center,” Blanchard said. “They are competing to see whose pinwheel can get the most posts.”
That multi-disciplinary team, which reviews cases of child abuse and neglect, is made up of DSS and health officials, as well as law enforcement and court personnel, among others.
In the past week, there have been close to 400 posts on the Sampson County Child Advocacy Center’s Facebook page of different people across Clinton and Sampson County, even a dog or two, holding one of their designated pinwheels — each agency has a different color — accompanied by #passthepinwheelforsampsoncac.
“The whole purpose of that social media campaign is to bring awareness to Child Abuse Prevention Month, and that’s what we’ve been able to do with that,” the CAC director said, urging others to join in supporting the cause, regardless of their affiliation. They are invited to post pictures of themselves and their friends and colleagues holding a pinwheel.
“We will recognize all organizations that participate and submit photos,” said Blanchard, who has had several people ask how they can participate. “Anybody can do a ‘Pass the Pinwheel’ campaign in their own business, church or other organization.”
It is all for an incredibly worthy issue, one that CAC deals with one a daily basis.
The local Child Advocacy Center began extending services about a year ago in spring 2015. Through 2015, services were provided to 125 sexually abused or severely physically abused children — 102 were sex abuse cases — in this county . So far in 2016, 33 children have been assisted by the CAC.
The center aims to be a neutral place that offers a safe haven for abused children in order to minimize trauma to those young victims of abuse and their non-offending family members by providing a centralized, safe and child-friendly facility. From the facility, the multi-disciplinary team conducts investigation and intervention activities and child victims can have advocates who are able to properly represent their interests throughout the ordeal, including court cases.
Forensic interviews are offered daily at the center, which is currently housed in the DSS building, and medical exams are provided by a medical profession three times a month. As the only permanent, full-time employee within the CAC, Blanchard does all the forensic interviews with the children.
She said she is seeing one particularly disturbing trend that is becoming more common.
“I’m seeing a lot more of how social media plays into these things — children interacting with adults on social media, children accessing apps where they are able to do this and parents have no clue what these apps are,” she remarked. “They are interacting with people who are much older than them. There is more child pornography because they are convinced by that perpetrator to take pictures of themselves and send it to them.”
Charges such as distributing child pornography and soliciting a child by computer or device have become fairly commonplace offenses. Those come as a result of incidents where DSS and the Child Advocacy Center work with the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office, all part of the multi-disciplinary team.
“We are seeing an increase in that,” Blanchard said. “I am shocked at the amount that social media plays into all of these cases.”
She said children get phones at such young ages, and unless monitored extensively, that phone can be a direct link to everything — good or bad — that the outside world has to offer.
“I don’t think some parents realize what is going on and that (their children) have access to so much at their fingertips,” Blanchard said. “If I could stress anything to parents, that is what it would be. Please monitor what your children are doing and what they have access to.”
She noted how extensive some apps are in mapping out where certain searches and social media posts are made, allowing more access to the user, including where they live. Even the simplest of Google searches on a phone can bring up links to seedy sites and explicit images.
“It is dangerous,” Blanchard said. “Parents just don’t know how easy it is for people to gain access to their children.”
Although April is Child Abuse Prevention Awareness Month, the CAC has sought to spread that awareness throughout the year and offer services that are truly safe and neutral. Its Steering Committee has met recently toward the ongoing goal of having a standalone facility for those services.
“We need to be in a more neutral location,” Blanchard said. “That is our biggest need. We need a place where we can provide our services in a neutral setting, away from DSS, away from law enforcement, away from the D.A.’s Office. It’s a more child-friendly neutral setting away from all of our disciplines.”
Until that time, the team of local officials across the county will continue to curb incidents of child abuse, and spread awareness to others to help do the same. That can be as simple as passing the pinwheel.
“If anybody wants to do that, I encourage them to do it,” Blanchard said. “Get a pinwheel, take a picture with it and post it on our Child Advocacy Center Facebook page and we’ll make sure they get recognition for it.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.