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Dozens of local and statewide advocacy groups crowded outside the steps of the Bexar County Courthouse Friday morning to increase community support and awareness of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, which starts April 1.
Bexar County struggles with high child abuse and neglect numbers, but a large number of political dignitaries, including Mayor Ivy Taylor, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, were present Friday to discuss the local and statewide collaborative efforts taking place to fight against child abuse and eventually eradicate the issue.
State Sen. Carlos Uresti, who has long worked to improve child abuse cases in Texas, opened the press conference with some alarming numbers : In 2015, there were 66,721 confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect in Texas, with 7,498 of those in the San Antonio region.
“We may not be able to save every child every time, but we can and we must do more to prevent tens of thousands of children from being hurt by the very people entrusted to protect them,” Uresti said, pointing to a photo of Jovonie Ochoa, a local 4 year old boy who was starved to death by his own grandparents in 2003.
Uresti, who was inspired by Ochoa’s story, created The Blue Ribbon Task Force to expand the statewide fight against child abuse and neglect. More than a dozen advocacy groups including Guardians of the Children, Child Advocates of San Antonio, Child Protective Services and ChildSafe were in the crowd, struggling to hold their signs against the strong winds.
Several individuals in the crowd have experienced or been directly affected by child abuse and neglect. Columbia Wilson, a board member on the Coalition of Human Rights Policy Advocates, has been fighting for her grandson Cristian, age 11, who was allegedly hit and abused by his school teacher as a form of discipline.
Wilson and Cristian brought handmade posters to the press conference, including one that shows Christian with a band-aid covering his mouth.
“Children like Cristian don’t have a voice,” Wilson said, adding that she has since removed Cristian from school, after officials said he would still attend school with the same teacher.
“The teacher used to lock me up and spank me, and that hurt,” Cristian said. Wilson said that the case is currently under investigation, and has received attention from Uresti and local law enforcement.
Stories like Cristian’s are not uncommon in the Bexar County, which was ranked #2 for child abuse cases in Texas in 2014. The County also struggles with a broken foster care system, which has more foster children than available homes. However, City and County law enforcement as well as the Children’s Shelter are working to change those numbers.
District Attorney Nico LaHood discussed his Child Abuse Unit, which has 22 prosecutors who handle a variety of child abuse cases including capital murder and sexual assault crimes against children. The number of child abuse cases that were brought to court and resulted in a conviction almost doubled between 2014 and 2015.
“In just one year they’ve made a difference,” LaHood said. “The message is clear: we’re not going to tolerate the abuse of our children.”
County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau echoed those sentiments, and said that the County Sheriff’s Office has increased the number of investigators who solely investigate child abuse cases and address family violence.
The Bexar County Children’s Court and early preventative programs also serve children and provide parents with counseling and education to help them become better caretakers for their children.
“There are parents who need to be punished for what they have done to their children, but we also have parents who need to be empowered so that we can protect these families,” said Judge Sakai.
The closing speakers asked members of the community, including citizens who stopped to hear , to fight against abuse in Bexar County through prevention, counseling and speaking up when they see or suspect that a child is being abused.
“Be the voice for the baby that cannot speak, be the voice for the child with special needs who cannot advocate for themselves. Be the voice for the child that can speak but doesn’t because they’re being abused,” said CPS Regional Director Erica Bañuelos. “The cycle has to stop now.”
ChildSafe will bring child abuse issues to the forefront this month, through the annual Cardboard Kids campaign. Each cardboard kid represents the thousands children in Bexar County who struggle with neglect and abuse from their caretakers.
Participating businesses and local organizations will create their own “cardboard kids” and publicly display them on April 7 to increase community action and support in the fight against child abuse and neglect. To learn more about child abuse in Bexar County, or to participate in the Cardboard Kids campaign, click here.
Top Image: Christina Brockway and Edward, 4, share a moment together during the press conference on the Bexar County Courthouse steps. Photo by Scott Ball.