In the last year, there were nearly 200,000 child abuse, neglect, or abandonment investigations in Florida. One organization aims to help parents and others involved with children not only identify potential risk factors, but also give them the tools to avoid such behaviors.
Rebekkah Sheetz is with Healthy Families Florida, a home visiting parent support program with the ultimate goal of preventing child abuse and neglect.
“The truth is it’s a reality, and it’s a daily occurrence here in Florida, and the truth of the matter is the child welfare system alone can’t prevent child abuse and neglect by themselves,” she said. “So, they have to call on every Floridian to do their part to prevent child abuse and neglect before it happens.”
But, Sheetz says preventing child abuse and neglect before it occurs doesn’t always happen. So, she adds it’s important that people know if they see something, they need to report it, especially since it’s the law.
“It’s a common misconception, that only those that work with children are mandated reporters, while in fact the state calls on everyone to make sure children are safe and well-cared for,” she added.
Sheetz says at Healthy Families Florida, they try to promote positive parent-child interactions. And, they measure whether what they’re doing is working.
“And, we are 98 percent effective,” she continued. “98 percent of families who participate in our program are free from abuse or neglect during participation. And, if that wasn’t awesome enough, 12 months after completing our program, we monitor it again and 98 percent of families who complete our program are free of child abuse and neglect after completion of the program.”
And, Sheetz says there are multiple statistics that show prevention efforts have lifelong benefits for the child.
Nancy Peck—a Senior Trainer with Healthy Families Florida—agrees. She says first, parents need to be educated so they can make informed decisions about what’s best for their families. And, that includes learning about the red flags that can lead to child abuse and neglect.
“The first red flag is multiple children in the home under the age of five,” she said. “It can really create some havoc, right? And, so, we’re not saying it’s a bad thing, but we are saying we can give parents some really good, valuable tools to help them to manage when there are multiple children in the home.”
Some helpful tools include having some special one-on-one time with each child as well as a regular routine.
Other red flags involve unsafe sleeping conditions and the potential danger of any body of water to infants—two of the leading causes of death for kids.
There’s also the Big 3, as Peck calls them, which are Mental Health, Substance Abuse, and Domestic Violence.
“Do you think a nine-month-old or a nine-year-old is more affected by domestic violence,” she asked. “A nine-month-old is more affected than a nine-year-old. A lot of people don’t think that because they think the baby doesn’t know, but they do, and it’s more scary for them because they don’t have the brain development to figure out what’s really going on. They just know something very scary and bad is happening, and that affects them the rest of their life. And, so, we need to educate so parents can make informed decisions about what they’re exposing their baby to.”
And, Peck says key instructions for better parenting include being more nurturing, exercising positive discipline, and having clear communication with your child. Social connections are key as well.
“So, isolation + role restriction = a higher abuse potential,” she added. “So, where parents are feeling isolated and where they feel like the child is restricting their freedom, those children are at a much higher risk for being abused and neglected.”
Both Peck and Sheetz gave recent talks to agency officials and other groups as part of the Florida Faith Symposium in Orlando—hosted by the Florida Department of Children and Families and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
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