UNION, NJ – A conversation on keeping children and families safe took place at Union Town Hall on Monday evening hosted by the Township’s Prevention on Child Abuse Committee.

Panelists John Esmerado from the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, Araceli Galvis from the New Jersey Child Assault Prevention Program, and Latisha Graham and Shauna Murphy from Child Protection and Permanency (formerly the Division of Youth and Family Services, DYFS).

“It is my hope that through this committee, we can support efforts towards the prevention of child abuse and neglect,” said Union Mayor Suzette Cavadas.  “Child abuse and neglect is a serious issue that affects thousands of American families.”  Cavadas said every 11 seconds a child in the United States is reported abused or neglected. 

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Cavadas said observing National Child Abuse Prevention Month provides an opportunity to shine a light on an issue that continues to affect so many children and families. “It also provides us an opportunity to thank social workers, teachers, physicians, nurses, and organizations like the Union County Child Advocacy Center and the Union County Child Assault Prevention Project for their work to protect, defend and provide safe places for children.”

“The statistics on child abuse and maltreatment are alarming and it’s a topic few want to discuss, although we all want to see the cycle of abuse end,” added Cavadas.  “By talking about this issue I hope we can encourage others to recognize the cycle of abuse and reach out and get the help needed in order to provide a safe and healthy environment for children and their families.”

Assistant Prosecutor Esmerado discussed the work of the Union County Child Advocacy Center at the Prosecutor’s Office.  “The Child Advocacy Center is a wrap-around service model,” said Esmerado.  “That means prosecutor staff and detectives, police, therapists and medical professionals come forward to one place to meet the child.  We cut down the waiting time for services from five business days to one business day and we guide that family through the court system.”

Galvis said the NJ Child Assault Prevention Program is one of the primary prevention programs in New Jersey.  “Our program offers workshops within the schools where we empower and educate teachers, parents and staff and run individual classroom workshops with the students.”  Galvis said the program’s model is “all kids deserve to be safe, strong and free.”  Galvis added that her program works with children from the Head Start programs all the way up to high school.  “We empower children to recognize their rights.” 

“Kids don’t always realize they have the right to be safe”, said Galvis, “to have someone to turn to and talk to, especially when they feel isolated.”  Victims of abuse can feel alone, she said.  “Sometimes these children are being abused by those who are supposed to be there to protect them,” added Galvis.  “We want to educate children to be able to turn to the schools, talk to their teachers, counselors, principals, and not to feel ashamed or embarrassed with the situation they’re dealing with.”

“Our goals at Child Protection and Permanency are to ensure that children are safe, stable and they have what they need in terms of well-being and permanency,” said Graham.  “Our focus is around getting community involved to support a family.”  Graham said this is a change in the department’s philosophy.  “Now we get the family involved, we get the community involved up front so we can have better outcomes.”

The panel discussed some of the indicators of child abuse and neglect.  Signs of physical abuse include unexplained bruises and welts on face, lips and mouth and on the torso, back buttocks and thighs, unexplained burns and fractures or lacerations or abrasions.  Indicators of physical neglect are consistent hunger, poor hygiene, inappropriate dress, consistent lack of supervision, constant fatigue or listlessness.  Sexual abuse indicators include difficulty walking or sitting, pain in genital area, and emotional maltreatment indicators include habit disorders, conduct disorders and neurotic traits.

A discussion of the impact of social media on abuse was discussed.  “The average teenager spends about 6.5 hours a day, non-homework, in front of a screen,” said Esmerado.  Esmerado cited a study that indicated that 99% of child-on-child abuse indicated that before a teenager sexually abused someone in their circle or in their home, they had access to pornography.  “As a parent, we need to check every day what our children are looking at,” said Esmerado, “and what’s going on at the neighbor’s house where our kids are playing.  A child who is saturated with pornography is going to do something with that pornography.”

Audience members questioned the panel on when to call authorities about possible child abuse or neglect.  Murphy encouraged anyone who suspects a child of being abused or neglected to call 1-877-NJ-ABUSE.