It’s always interesting to hear about the good work being done by the Southwest Mississippi Children’s Advocacy Center.

In its 21 years, the non-profit has helped literally thousands of local children. There is no doubt their efforts have made a difference.

At the same time, it’s always a bit dispiriting to get an update. The problem of child abuse, whether sexual, physical, emotional or neglect, certainly isn’t going away.

It’s safe to say that as long as governments and donors are willing to provide funding, the advocacy center’s services will be in great demand. As another example of that, it has opened a satellite office in Brookhaven.

These differing impressions — interesting but dispiriting — came to mind several times when Brooklyn Schmidt, the advocacy center’s outreach coordinator, spoke to the McComb Rotary Club on Sept. 30.

For example, one of her Power Point slides had the title, “The Need Is Growing.” Usually it’s good when a business has more customers, but certainly not this time.

The slide showed a steady increase in the number of children interviewed by the McComb-based center from 2014 to 2018. Most likely this is because more children and adults were reporting abuse. A pilot program in 2017 connected the advocacy center to a statewide hotline to access Pike County cases. That increased the center’s caseload.

The advocacy center served 254 children in 2014. By 2018 that had more than doubled, to 564.

The number of children served has declined this year and last, but Schmidt said one reason for fewer cases in 2020 is that children have been out of school. That gave anyone being mistreated less of an opportunity to confide in a teacher, school nurse or other adult.

But as school attendance works its way back to normal, the reports are increasing. So far in 2020 the center has served 405 children.

How much more dispiriting can it get? Actually, it can — by a factor of three.

Another slide in Schmidt’s presentation said that 78% of child abuse victims wait till adulthood before telling anyone what happened to them. If those figures are true in Southwest Mississippi, it means that for every case of abuse uncovered in the five counties the advocacy center serves, another three children are keeping a horrible secret.

So if the advocacy center works with 400 children in a given year, another 1,200 go undiscovered.

That’s pretty dispiriting. But it also shows how badly the advocacy center’s services are needed.

Some of the center’s most important work may be unappreciated. Its staff tries to reduce greatly the number of times children have to tell their story to authorities — which can include schools, hospitals, law enforcement, prosecutors, child protective services, mental health services and youth court.

It does this by videotaping a one-on-one interview with a child, while officers from multiple agencies observe from another room in order to reduce stress on the child.

Another thing Schmidt mentioned that stuck with me is how an adult should react if a child tells them of mistreatment.

“If a child tells you, the important thing is to stay calm,” she said. “Otherwise the child may recant.”

That would be a challenge for most adults. My immediate reaction would be one of anger. But what she said makes sense. If a child, especially a young one, thinks he’ll get in trouble by telling, it is human nature to change your story.

Schmidt had plenty of other valuable information:

• Only 5% of young children and 10% of older children who report abuse are lying.

• The vast majority of children are abused by either a family member they know or someone their family trusts.

• Half of abusers are able to convince other adults either that the child is lying, or that they shouldn’t report the case.

• There are many serious long-term effects of child abuse, starting with a greater likelihood of criminal activity when the victim is older.

Hearing things like that also is dispiriting. Child abuse is a problem in every community, one that causes damage over many years.

Fortunately, more help than ever is available. The state child abuse hotline is 1-800-222-8000, or call the advocacy center at 684-4039.

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