Commentary

Pinwheels are a reminder of the work ahead of us during Child Abuse Prevention Month | Opinion

Protecting our children from abuse is a collective responsibility. We have to remember it every day

The PA Family Support Alliance planted flags around the Capitol in Harrisburg as part of National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Each flag symbolizes the number of sustained child abuse cases that occurred in Pennsylvania during 2020. (Capital-Star photo by Marley Parish)

By Chris Kirchner

Whether in home districts or while traveling to Harrisburg for session days this month, Pennsylvania legislators may notice colorful displays of bright pinwheel “gardens” spinning outside of hospitals, county courthouses, and other community spaces.

In honor of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, each year during April our 40+ Children’s Advocacy Centers place pinwheels—often blue, the official color for child abuse awareness and prevention—to represent the numbers of child victims of abuse who were served locally by a Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) in the prior year.

Why pinwheels? For more than a decade now, the pinwheel has been used by the child abuse awareness movement nationwide as a symbol of childhood.

There is something about the way a pinwheel catches the breeze, flashing colors and shining light. It reminds us of a time when we were young—free to laugh and play, learn and grow. For Children’s Advocacy Centers, the pinwheel represents the kind of childhood every kid should have—a childhood without the fear of abuse or the shadow of trauma.

Many Pennsylvania residents do not know about Children’s Advocacy Centers unless they have had to bring a child to one—and elected officials could be better informed, as well.

We like to say that CACs are where abuse stops and healing starts. CACs provide child-friendly facilities where victims can feel safe disclosing abuse and where parents and caregivers can feel supported through a process that is often overwhelming.

Because so many agencies are involved in child abuse response, CACs bring together teams of professionals: in addition to forensic interviewers and victim advocates, this includes law enforcement officers, child protective services caseworkers, medical professionals, and trauma therapists—all of whom work together to deliver a model of response that is child-focused at every step of the way.

The priority of any CAC is to reduce additional trauma to the child and ensure they are connected to the services and resources they need to begin the healing journey.

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In 2021, our centers served 15,474 Pennsylvania children who came to CACs because of suspected abuse. That is a lot of pinwheels—and we want to see the day when there are no pinwheels planted during April. Child abuse is a difficult subject to talk about.

No child should suffer abuse, and none of us wants to think about children being abused. When we see pinwheels that represent these child victims, we are sobered by the reminder that child abuse really does happen—and that it happens in our own schools, places of worship, athletics, and homes. The hard reality is that in 9 out of 10 cases, the abuser is someone the child knows and trusts.

Each and every one of these young victims deserves to have a happier, healthier childhood—and that’s what Children’s Advocacy Centers make possible. Abuse does not have to mean the end of childhood. When a CAC is involved, the trauma of abuse is less likely to become a life-defining event.

Yet, there are still children in our state who do not have easy access to a CAC when they need one; the closest center may be over an hour’s drive away, causing hardship to parents or caregivers who need to take extra time off work or pay for an additional tank of gas.

Without a CAC, child victims are often interviewed in police stations or hospitals by professionals who are well-meaning but not trained to talk with children about abuse. They may have to repeat a disclosure multiple times, and may never hear someone say “it’s not your fault.”

In the words of Camille, a former child victim who came to a CAC and bravely disclosed the abuse she had been suffering, “it was like a giant weight lifted off my shoulders.”

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That’s what we like to call a child’s “pinwheel chance”—that moment when a child can step out of the shadows of fear, secrecy, and shame, and into the light of disclosure and safety. There is still long-term healing that needs to happen for child victims, but with the intervention and support of a CAC, that healing is now possible.

For children like Camille, there can be laughter and joy again despite the experience of abuse; that is the hope we also plant with each pinwheel during April.

Last year, 15,474 children in our state did get the best possible response to abuse—a CAC response. That is something to celebrate. And something we should all strive to make possible for every child in Pennsylvania, no matter where they live.

Chris Kirchner is executive director of Children’s Advocacy Centers of Pennsylvania (PennCAC), a statewide nonprofit organization representing 40+ local centers that provide a collaborative, child-friendly, trauma-informed response to child physical and sexual abuse. Many CACs partner with local individuals, businesses, and organizations to provide pinwheels for display during Child Abuse Prevention Month. If you are interested in hosting a pinwheel display next year during April, please visit our website to find the contact information for a CAC near you

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