By Sarah Ovaska-Few
Cumberland County is rethinking how it responds to child abuse.
Instead of framing abuse as a problem shouldered by individual families, an ambitious effort by a collection of two dozen nonproft partners, government groups and concerned residents are instead naming it a community problem deserving of a community-wide solution.
The S.O.A.R.(Strengths in Overcoming Adversity thru Resiliency) program aims to use evidence-based strategies to make families stronger and more resilient to the ups and downs of life that can lead to parents lashing out or exposing children to harmful environments.
“We all need to take ownership of this,” said Eileen Cedzo, a family resource center counseling manager at the nonproft Partnership for Children of Cumberland County, one of the groups involved in S.O.A.R.
S.O.A.R. started working on a community-wide approach in 2016 and formalized its plan to combat child abuse two years ago. The group was galvanized by a 2017 Fayetteville Observer series that took sharp aim at the dangerous conditions that led to the deaths of children under the watch of local child welfare officials. S.O.A.R. members range from those at groups like the Partnership for Children and the Child Advocacy Center that work day in and out with families as well as Fort Bragg’s Army Community Service, school system officials, law enforcement, faith leaders and interested citizens.
The goals of the program are lofty – shifting an entire community to address and reduce abusive situations by boosting what are known as five protective factors: parental resilience, social connections, knowledge of parenting and child development, concrete support in times of need, and the social and emotional competence of children.
Much of the work in Cumberland County is happening through community-wide education and is intentionally geared toward families of all backgrounds, incomes, races and make-up.
“Parenting is really, really hard,” said Sharon Hirsch, the executive director of Prevent Child Abuse NC. Most, if not all, people who have had young children know how easy it is to give way to anger, she said.
The work includes hosting frequent parent cafes, where parents meet to discuss their challenges and struggles; screenings of the movie “Resilience: the Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope” about the adverse effects of childhood trauma; and training early education workers on how to recognize trauma effects in young children and respond in ways that help the child.
It’s also in the planning stages of bringing Family Connects to the county. The program allows for an experienced and trained nurse to visit new babies and parents at their homes soon after birth. A similar program led to a steep decrease in emergency room visits in Durham. S.O.A.R. members hope it will be in place in Cumberland County by 2021.
Abuse in early life leads to life challenges
Abuse, both physical and sexual, is often a hidden problem, suffered behind closed doors and with young victims unable or afraid to call out for help. At times, they may be unable to recognize they need and deserve help.
Groups like Prevent Child Abuse NC and others use April, National Child Abuse Prevention Month, to highlight the long-lasting damage abuse can cause, and highlight ways communities can better recognize dangerous situations and prevent abusive situations from taking root.
Abuse and neglect can affect a person’s health and well-being for decades to come, as was revealed 20 years ago when catalyzing research into adverse childhood experiences, was published. Adverse childhood events, frequently referred to as ACES, are situations such as when children are exposed to family violence, experience housing or food insecurity, or have someone in their life suffering from addiction or incarceration. Having these experiences, it’s been found, can lead to a lifetime of health challenges, from disrupted neurodevelopment and heart disease to increased risk of the adult child’s own substance abuse, even early death.
Much of the child welfare system has been focused on dealing with families after allegations of abuse and neglect have occurred. And while that work will continue in Cumberland County, the S.O.A.R. program is seeking to pay more attention to the ways abuse can be prevented in the first place.
Part of that is trying to work with families ahead of time to offer understand how difficult it is to be a parent, especially given that many people are living in places without family close by or have financial or other pressures bearing down on them, Cedzo said.
The work in Cumberland County isn’t happening in a vacuum, however. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is looking closely at protective factors as part of its Early Childhood Action Plan and hopes a focus on social determinants of health in the upcoming switch to Medicaid managed care will bring more efforts like S.O.A.R. to other areas of the state.
“There are no plans really at the local level for child welfare,” Hirsch said. “Prevention happens locally.”
By working on the community level to build up those securities – referred to as protective factors – families will hopefully be better able to handle the crises that may occur and not resort to violence or neglect by activating support networks around them.
Change is often most effective and attainable at the local level, with community members better able to identify where the gaps are in their strategies and how best to support families in need, Hirsch said.
That’s why Cumberland County’s foray into building a community-wide response to abuse is so important, she said. It has the potential to push past the limitations that often come with federal or state-government funded programs and dig deep into areas where the need is apparent.
Prevent Child Abuse NC is now working on similar countywide resiliency plans in Wake, Transylvania, Onslow and Clay counties, in addition to supporting the ongoing community-wide efforts in Cumberland County.
Steep challenges in Cumberland County
Cumberland County has a unique set of challenges when it comes to improving conditions for children, with endemic rates of poverty and people connected to the military constantly cycling in and out of the community.
The county’s health outcomes ranked 73rd, worst of any urban counties, in an annual assessment of the state’s 100 counties, a ranking that uses infant mortality rates, hospitalization rates, child poverty numbers and other data to create its list. The city and county are also scarred by poverty, with a quarter of its children living in households earning less than $25,000 for a family of four.
The Army, an integral part of the Fayetteville’s identity and economy, brings an element of transience to the county, with a large portion of the community spending just a few years in the area at a time when they’re starting families, far away from where extended family support structures may be. Deployments only increase the types of stress that can lead to abuse.
The S.O.A.R. group has gotten ideas and support from the military, where the Army Community Services already offers home visits to new parents and has long been working to help families handle the well-known stressors of military life, said the Partnership for Children’s Cedzo.
Funding has also been a challenge, and the S.O.A.R. effort has so far been happening without any specialized funds, said Sharon Moyer, a community engagement administrator with the Partnership for Children. The group has offered meeting space and staff time to develop the idea and joining with Army Community Services (ACS) to pay for the “Resilience” DVDs shown at facilitated showings. ACS has picked up the tab for training the 28 facilitators who run the Parent Cafés.
Resistance to talking about abuse
Funding isn’t the only hurdle the S.O.A.R. group faces in trying to have more honest conversations about abuse and its detrimental effects.
Faith Boehmer, the volunteer prevention coordinator for the area’s Child Advocacy Center, relayed how the nonproft organization that works to address abuse struggled to find community interest in a “Body Safety” class it offers to teach children about their own bodies and how to talk with trusted adults if they’re uncomfortable with someone’s interactions. They routinely teach a similar class at the preschool level every November, reaching as many as 900 to 1,500 children each fall.
But there was little interest when Boehmer offered the class, which involved an intern reading books and conducting a related exercise, at no charge to 15 to 20 summer camps in the Fayetteville area.
Only one program – the Find-A-Friend mentorship program run by Fayetteville Urban Ministry – ended up taking the training last year, she said. Staffing shortages, with no intern available, has meant it won’t be offered this upcoming summer.
Part of the reason Boehmer suspects so many summer camp and youth program operators passed is the discomfort adults feels around the topic of sexual abuse. Concerned parents, even with advance notice and an effort to collect permission ahead of time, may object, Boehmer said.
“We still just don’t want to address that it’s an issue,” she said, adding that sometimes the resistance could be unconscious and a result of victimization a person themselves has experienced.
Having a community-wide effort like S.O.A.R., she said, is heartening because it leads to more conversations about the realities of abuse and ways to prevent it
“When you work in your silos, you don’t see” all the solutions,” Boehmer said.
Her hope, and that of other S.O.A.R. members, is that those solutions will come when an entire community works together.