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Child Abuse Awareness: Gulf Coast Kid's House Leads the Way

Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

April is National Child Abuse Awareness Month and in part two of our series “Dave Dunwoody visited Escambia County’s child advocacy center.

Located on 12th Avenue, Gulf Coast Kid’s House features professionals and resources for the intervention, investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases, under its kid-friendly roof.

“We’ve got such a competent team here in the building; they’ve all been doing this a very long time,” said Executive Director Stacy Kostevicki.

During fiscal year 2016, Gulf Coast Kid’s House served more than 3,600 children.

“Ideally, the cases are referred to the Gulf Coast Kid’s House through the [Florida] Department of Children and Families or law enforcement,” said Kostevicki. “But, the more we’re out in the community talking about Gulf Coast Kid’s House and it’s a safe place to go, we do have families show up at our doorstep, wanting to report that something’s happening at home.”

And therein lies a major concern. Ninety-two percent of victims are abused by someone they know and trust; 20 percent are abused before their eighth birthday, and the most common age group abused is between newborn and six years old.

While not every child brought to Gulf Coast Kid’s House needs a medical exam, Kostevicki says they do share a few things in common.

“Each family is provided with a family advocate; we call it kind of ‘The Anchor to the Earth,’ during that initial period,” Kostevicki said. “Just to make sure that families’ needs are met [and] that they’re well-informed as the case progresses.”

“Every teacher, everyone who works in the school system, are designated as ‘Mandatory Reporters,’” said Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. “If we have even the slightest suspicion that a child’s being neglected or has been abused, we are obligated to phone it in.”

School District employees are also trained to notice what could be signs of abuse at home, bruises can send up red flags, but Thomas says there are more signs to watch for.

“If a child’s coming to school unkempt, [it] looks like they haven’t had baths or they’re not being care of, those would be signs of neglect,” Thomas said. “[It’s] really hard to come to school and put your full mind and attention to the reading lesson.”

And not all abuse is physical. For some kids, the trauma is emotional and/or psychological, which tends to be a little harder to detect.

“What you don’t know; is the child himself suffering from mental illness?” said Thomas. “In that case, we would have either our regular guidance counselors or a licensed mental health counselor conduct an evaluation to see if they could ascertain better information about the child.”

Another issue in the home is the instance of domestic violence conducted in front of the child. Stacy Kostevicki at Gulf Coast Kid’s House says that has much in common with child abuse – such as both centering on power and control and being highly cyclical.

“Domestic abuse and child abuse have always happened; but the community as a whole is getting less and less tolerant,” said Kostevicki. “It happened with domestic violence in the 1980s; as soon as people started saying ‘no, it’s not acceptable’ to beat your spouse, they saw domestic violence rates vastly decrease.”

While abusing children has always been frowned upon by society, the traditional thinking has been that it’s a private matter within the family. But as was the case with domestic abuse, the pendulum appears to be swinging towards less tolerance for child abuse. The number of such cases today compared to just a couple of decades ago seems to bear that out.