Getting past the anger
The irony was lost on no one.
At the annual Child Abuse Vigil held in Storm Lake Thursday, small children gathered around a baby in a carrier, happily cooing together. Others youngsters bounced balloons and watched curiously as candles were lit.
Before them were spread eight blue teardrop placards, resting on empty chairs, signifying eight youngsters who knew no such loving care. Each lost their lives at the hands of Iowa child abusers over this past year.
Some were beaten, some sexually abused, one simply starved to death - and had weighed 12 pounds at age 3. The youngest of the victims was just two months old when he was killed.
The ceremony, held in the Buena Vista County Courthouse, drew tears for some, but also expressed hope for a future when such a vigil may no longer be needed.
That time, it seems, has not arrived. There were 21 confirmed cases of child abuse in Storm Lake in 2006 (down from 33 the previous year) and over 100 cases were investigated in Buena Vista County last year.
In coordinating this year's vigil to draw awareness to the situation, volunteer Hannah Short said, a classic quote from James Thurber served as inspiration:
"Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness."
Candles were lit for each of the lost children, balloons in powdery blue and soft pink were released into the sky, representing the hopes for boys and girls to be free of fear. Buena Vista University senior Sam Wooden performed a song from the viewpoint of a family that had lost a child. An honor guard of Storm Lake Police and firefighters, along with a representative of the county sheriff's department - people who must see the impact of abuse in their careers - stood tall in back of the gathered crowd.
Speaker Kyle Payne, of the Buena Vista University Students Against a Violent Environment (SAVE), spoke of his work as an advocate against pornography.
"It brings me a lot of joy to see so many people who truly care," he told the gathering, and spoke of how difficult it had been for him to discover the cases of victims of sexual abuse without being overcome by anger and losing hope for change.
Locally, the first goal must be to face reality, he said, and to see victims as people instead of statistics. "We tend to reduce suffering to words and numbers on a page... we must learn how to feel, to think about and experience the problems of our global family as more than numbers."
Payne said that in a time of issues like urban violence, war and fear of immigration, issues like child abuse cannot be forgotten.
The society is one in which women's bodies are figuratively bought and sold, and even rape is eroticized, Payne suggested. "Sex sells - and it sells so well that we turn girls into sexual objects at a younger and younger age."
The answer is not to strike out in anger, which would only divide society further, Payne said. "We are a culture that accepts and often celebrates violence. Our response needs to be rooted in compassion and peace."
Local Juvenile Court Judge Mark Timpko was driven to tears as she spoke of the anger and joys she has experienced.
She recalled one of her saddest moment on the bench, in a case of a child who had been in the court system before was again the focus of abuse. At less than 4 years old, the child was injured, life-flighted to the hospital near death, and then "coached" by the adults around him on the answers to give. The child protective system eventually returned the child to the home, where both the child and siblings were abused again later.
In other cases, the job can warm the heart, she said.
Timpko explained,"In one case, we had a complete stranger who saw a child abuse situation happening in another vehicle. This person was not about to let the children out of her sight, and she wound up forgetting about where she was traveling to and following the other vehicle for over 30 miles to make sure that he children would be safe. Because of people like this, children can have a safety net around them.
"When you see something, report it."
Plans are already in the works for another vigil next year.
If organizers have their way, children like those who were brought to the event by their parents this week, will grow up in a world where teardrop placards, memorial candles and balloon releases - at least for this reason - will be only a distant memory.