State and local officials and directors of the human service agencies gathered at City Hall to marke Child Abuse Prevention Month. Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier told them not to 'underestimate the power of the playgroup' or the power of their advocacy efforts.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — There's been a drop in the number of tiny shoes that have lined the steps at City Hall over the years. But those working to prevent child abuse say it's still not enough.
"Step Up For Prevention" has become annual event to raise awareness of the number of child abuse cases the state — and county — deals with each month. On Friday morning, 84 sets of sneakers in blue and pink symbolized the average number of substantial cases of child abuse for Berkshire County.
"It's less than last year but it's completely unacceptable," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, who said she was astounded to realize the number was for a month, not a year. "Please don't underestimate the power of these things, the power of these shoes in making a statement."
The shoes, donated by the Boston Bruins and their wives, are a way to break through to people uncomfortable with the subject or unbelieving that such acts could happen in their town or neighborhood or be done by the people they know.
"Unfortunately, there is universality and when you have shoes on a step then people can visualize children standing in those shoes," said Alicia Lenahan, chief executive officer of the Children's Trust Fund. "What is really important is that prevention works, so there's really no need for these sad stories to be told."
Berkshire County has a collaborative network ranging from playgroups to afterschool programs to law enforcement to Berkshire County Kids Place to provide support, education for children and parents, child care, health and wellness, housing and other resources. Officials say those preventive measures are making an impact.
More state funding is allowing programs to expand. For Child Care of the Berkshires, it means a new home visiting program and parent education group, and the ability to serve 100 more families. Northern Berkshire Community Coalition has created a new "Family Place" at 61 Main St. in North Adams in conjunction with the state and the Children's Trust Fund.
Carolyn Mower Burns, director of Berkshire Children and Families, said her organization serves some 3,600 families a year. In the "dark ages," when she started her career in social services, there was no office in Pittsfield, no district attorney that understood the problem and little or no collaboration.
"I think about that time and I think about where we are today," said Burns. "And I think we've come so far and it makes me feel so hopeful for our children and our future."
District Attorney David Capeless, whose office has been integral in developing resources to fight child abuse, said the work his office does in investigation and prosecution isn't what will end child abuse.
Children from local day cares attended the event.
"Real prevention is when those cases don't ever happen," he said. "When we have parents who are informed, supportive and confident and chidren who are nutured and protected, we end up having children who live in a safe environment ... and children who live safe in their lives are their own best protection, their own best prevention, because when something is wrong they will know it."
State Reps. Gailanne Caridd, D-North Adams, and Paul Mark, D-Peru, pledged to advocate for groups working to prevent child abuse. "We want to move the shoes right off this step," said Cariddi. Mark warned that a society is judged by how it treats its children.
Also speaking were Mayor Daniel Bianchi, who read a proclamation declaring April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, NBCC Executive Director Alan Bashevkin, Child Care of the Berkshires Executive Director Anne Nemetz-Carlson and Brittany Lutz, 16, of North Adams, who spoke of how she had found support in raising her 19-month-old son and continuing her education thanks to Healthy Families, a Children's Trust Fund program.
Farley-Bouvier, the mother of three, recalled how the playgroup her children attended had provided "a village" to which she is still connected.
"Don't underestimate the power of the playgroup," she said. "It really, really is important, and don't underestimate the power of your advocacy ... We will reduce the number of these shoes."
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