LUMBERTON — “It really shouldn’t hurt to be a child, it shouldn’t hurt to be a child,” said Valerie Comrie, summing up why she and dozens of others attended Saturday’s Robeson County Big Blue Out, an event held to raise awareness of child abuse.
The event, held in Biggs Park Mall, was hosted by the North Carolina Guardian Ad Litem Children’s Advocate group and the Robeson County BRIDGES for Families program. Kids enjoyed activities, like a game room and a fire safety puppet show put on by the Lumberton Fire Department. Their families browsed booths featuring organizations like the Southeastern Family Violence Center and Parents as Teachers that work to prevent abuse and provide resources for those affected by it.
“I don’t think anybody ever just wakes up and decides they want to hurt a child. It’s usually lots of factors that are going on in that family’s life. It’s socioeconomic, it’s emotional. There’s so many factors that lead up to that event and if we can help put positive supports in place maybe we can prevent the next abuse,” said Amy Cox, Guardian ad Litem’s district administrator in Robeson County.
“Unfortunately we have about 315 children on our caseload right now that need an advocate and we have about 57 volunteers,” Cox said.
Those 57 volunteers, who also work with attorneys to represent abuse victims in court, are busy making sure each child gets a visit every month.
Comrie, who works with the Robeson County Family Drug Treatment Court, worries the problem of child abuse may be growing in Robeson County — and that people don’t realize it.
“I don’t think this community as a whole is aware of the child abuse that exists in this community,” she said. “… When you have approximately 300 children in care, then that’s a big problem. Robeson County is the largest county but that’s just land size, so that’s quite a bit of children.”
According to ncchild.org, 523 children were found to be victims of abuse in the county during 2011. The year before, 210 children were found to be abused.
Many of those children have been severely neglected rather than physically abused. In some cases, their parents have left them alone or in unsafe environments or do not give them the medical care they need.
Comrie said in 2008, when the treatment court began helping those struggling with substance abuse to get clean and be responsible parents, fewer than 200 kids were involved in the program.
“We don’t speak up anymore like we used to … we tend to ignore it and say its not necessarily happening in my house, it’s not my problem,” Comrie said. “But we’re going to have to change that. We need to make that shift again to go back to where we were if we’re going to change this issue.”
For Ashlyn Francis, a senior studying social work at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, working with the Robeson County Family Drug Treatment Court and volunteering at the Big Blue Out are causes close to her heart.
“Child abuse to me is very important, just to reach out to the community to let them know it is here in Robeson County and that they need to know about child abuse in general,” she said after sitting down for one of the fire department’s performances.
Johnnie Francis, who has volunteered for Guardian ad Litem since 1990, was hoping to find some helping hands.
“Today is to try to encourage others to come,” she said.
Cox said if the event helps just one person, it will be more than worth the hours of preparation she and her team put into it.
“I think it’s the passion that we have for children that causes us to do this over and over … it’s a work of the heart. It’s not about being the hero, it’s not about saying we did something. It’s about making sure that every child has a voice and that every child is protected,” she said.