WACO, TX — The Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children is raising awareness about child abuse during National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
According to Children’s Advocacy Center Program Director Dr. Kerry Burkley, the nonprofit has noticed an increase in child abuse cases in Central Texas in the past years, which he said could be due in part to the people being aware of their duty to report child abuse.
"It doesn't matter about whatever community they are in. It doesn't matter their economic status. Child abuse happens everywhere,” Burkley said.
He said last year, they identified 638 sexual or physical abuse cases in six counties, including McLennan, Falls and Hill Counties.
"638 is just a drop in the bucket comparative of the number of the children there are in those six counties,” Burkley said.
He added for one reported case, eight go unreported.
According to the Department of Family of Protective Services, last year 418 children were removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect in McLennan County. In 2018, 828 children in Bell County were removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect.
At Waco ISD, potential child abuse cases are referred to Bell’s Hill Elementary School Counselor Allison Cornell.
The lead elementary counselor said teachers can usually notice physical and behavior changes that can be consistent with child abuse.
"Some students may come really withdrawn and they almost don't have a voice of their own. Others may come across as really violent and aggressive and they are demonstrating what is done with them at home and what they are seeing at home,” Cornell said.
Cornell can identify signs of abuse through activities and conversations with potential victims.
If she suspects there is abuse, she contacts Children Protective Services.
Meanwhile, school staff keeps helping the children heal.
"Checking in on them. Making them feel when they are at school, this is a safe place and a place where we want them to be,” Cornell said.
CPS and law enforcement agencies in our area usually refer those cases first to the Advocacy Center.
The nonprofit group initially conducts a forensic interview, which is recorded, with the alleged victim to do fact-finding about the situation. The investigating agencies can watch it from another room and keep a copy of the interview.
The organization also provides medical examinations, case management and free counseling.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact 254-752-7233.
If you believe a child is being abused, contact Child Protective Services or a local law enforcement agency.