By now you may have noticed the blue pinwheels, “wear blue” events or other signs that April is Child Abuse Prevention Month.
And if you follow the news, you already know Florida’s opioid crisis is driving a sharp spike in the number of abused, abandoned and neglected children coming into out-of-home care — nearly 32,000 statewide as of February. That’s a 13.7 percent increase over the last 2.5 years.
And in Palm Beach County, our judicial circuit, 1,400 children are in out-of-home care, removed from their own homes for their safety.
Our child welfare system is bursting at the seams. We read about toddlers found in a back seat, their parents dead of overdoses in the front, and we feel helpless before such tragedies. According to research commissioned by Prevent Child Abuse America, 97 percent of adults say they would take action on behalf of children, but just don’t know how.
I say: One child at a time, we can do this.
First, it’s important to understand the factors that drive families into the child welfare system: mental illness, addiction, domestic violence, poverty and trauma.
Second, it’s important to understand these drivers as intergenerational, learned and handed down in families, and that to prevent child abuse, we have to break the cycle.
Third, it’s important to understand that most abused and neglected children want to be with their parents no matter how badly they’ve been treated — and that to help children, we must help their families.
There are many ways to do this in our own community, and Prevent Child Abuse America found that most adults are already doing prevention work by mentoring children or parents (70 percent), donating time or money to groups that serve children (80 percent) or advocating for policies that improve children’s well-being (77 percent).
But now we must dig deeper. The opioid epidemic is not just any scourge. For our neighbors already struggling with poverty and trauma, it is a deadly escape that can land their kids in foster care or leave their aging parents with toddlers to raise.
And our overloaded foster care system is no place for traumatized children. According to the Ackerman Institute for the Family, there are 401,000 American children in foster care. Their average length of stay is 25.3 months — and these children have rates of PTSD similar to veterans of war.
So, although you are probably involved in prevention already, please consider what else you might do, like respite care. Maybe you can’t be a foster or adoptive parent, but perhaps you can support someone who is.
Or can you volunteer as a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) and be the voice for a child? Without an advocate, the odds are stacked against children in foster care. But a child with a GAL volunteer spends 20 percent less time in foster care than a child without one. And studies show children with volunteer advocates receive more critical services than those without, and are four times more likely to find a permanent home.
We are so deeply grateful for the 643 Guardian ad Litem volunteers in the 15th Judicial Circuit, representing more than 93 percent of the children in foster care, and to our many donors and community partners. Thank you for giving children a shot at a better life.
Join us by calling (561) 355-6224 or visiting www.galpbc.org.
Michelle Canaday, Circuit Director, Guardian ad Litem Program of the 15th Judicial Circuit, Palm Beach County