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Child Abuse vigil will light candles for awareness

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The candlelight vigil has become an annual tradition in Storm Lake - a sad one, because the need to light candles in memory of abused children hasn't gone away; a hopeful one, because people still care enough to try to do something about it.

This year's vigil will take place on the Buena Vista County Courthouse green Thursday, April 24, starting at 5:30 p.m.

Children's activist and Buena Vista University student Janet Pedroza will be the keynote speaker. The DIMES group from Buena Vista University will be performing a skit and interpretive dance on the issue, and singer Mychy I' Ayla Mathis will perform during the lighting of the candles and the reading of the names of Iowa victims. Pastor Doug Corlew of Alta will provide opening and closing prayers. An emcee has not yet been chosen.

Kathy Fritz, coordinator of the Court Appointed Special Advocates program in the county, feels the vigil is an important today as it was when was first held a number of years ago.

"I don't think there is enough awareness of child abuse in our community," she said. "There are still people who just don't want to believe that it happens right here in their community, and we have to come to grips with that before we can reach solutions.

"Any time you can promote awareness and talk about prevention, you have to take that opportunity."

Storm Lake Police records indicate that there were 27 cases of child physical or sexual abuse in the city in 2007, up from 21 in 2006. The recent high was 46 cases in 2004.

According to the group Prevent Child Abuse Iowa, there were 146 reports of child abuse made in Buena Vista County in 2006, the most recent year for which data is available. About 34 percent of the reports were confirmed, with 82 children under 18 found to be victims - ranking the county 54th among the state's 99 counties in confirmed child abuse cases. About 28 in every 1,000 children 0-17 in the county that year were confirmed to have been abused. The most recent figures show about 12.5 percent of all children in the county living in below poverty-level situations.

At last year's vigil, eight blue teardrop placards, resting on empty chairs, represented eight youngsters who had lost their lives at the hands of Iowa child abusers over the previous year.

Some were beaten, some sexually abused, one was 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.

Local Juvenile Court Judge Mary Timko was driven to tears as she spoke of the anger and joys she has experienced in working with the cases of children under seige.

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.

"There is a joy in people who are stepping up to protect children and taking steps forward on this issue," Timko 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."

Fritz said that working with families torn by abuse is an emotional challenge.

"I see all kinds of abuse cases - some involve drug or alcohol abuse, some are physical and some sexual, every single year," said Fritz. CASA provides volunteer advocates to help a child through the court process that often follows an abusive situation.

"To me, the most heart-breaking cases are always the youngest ones - babies, infants, toddlers. It is always heartbreaking when a child has to separated from parents, although it is necessary in some cases," Fritz said.

"In the case of older children, we often see them in situations where they just want to go home - and maybe it isn't to the point where it is safe enough to do that."

The vigil tends to attract about 30-50 people every year, often the same ones who are involved in social causes in the community.

"This should really be for everyone, and we would really like to see more people come out and show that our community is concerned about the welfare of its children. This is Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month, and it would be great to see a real crowd there," Fritz said.

There is also a need for more CASA volunteers, and people may call Fritz at 749-5184 or attend the event to get information on how they can get involved.

In case of bas weather, the vigil will move indoors to the courthouse atrium.

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