Stopping Abuse Before It Happens

Aileen Deese / Prevent Child Abuse Hawaii

It’s estimated that 20,000 kids are abused in Hawaii every year – the same number of births in a year. This agency is working to end such abuse.

Through the sordid march of mankind’s history there are many groups that can lay claim to their fair share of horrendous treatment, from the Cambodians at the hands of Pol Pot to the Africans’ treatment in the Americas to the Jews of Europe before and during World War II.

But if you want to find a group that consistently has been maligned and mistreated through the millen-nia, it is one known to all races and religions: children.

Going back to the earliest days of recorded history, children have been treated as property, mere tokens for their fathers to trade, abuse or kill at their whim. These traditions and laws were passed down from Egyptians to Romans to Europeans to Americans. The most defenseless among us were there to be used however adults saw fit.

The Industrial Revolution rolled into America in the 1820s, and who became the newest cog in the factory wheel? Kids. Children as young as 5 were working 16-hour days to feed the economic beast.


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Board president Bonnie Parsons with PCAH's iconic pinwheels. Nathalie Walker photos nwalker@midweek.com

But with this financial growth America finally found some decency and began to provide some protection for the afflicted among us, namely, our pets. The ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) was founded in 1866 by Henry Bergh, who wanted to protect “these mute servants of mankind.”

Meanwhile, the children of this nation toiled away in soot-stained factories.

It took another eight years until the tragic case of 9-year-old Mary Ellen McCormack, who was found bound and beaten mercilessly in her bed, that a local church worker named Etta Wheeler appealed that children were members of the animal kingdom and should therefore be protected by the ASPCA.

Thus children were finally protected – albeit at the same level as the common household cat – for the next 90 years until the modernization of radiology led Dr. C. Henry Kempe to begin to notice how many children he treated had obvious non-accidental injuries, and he published the landmark paper, “The Battered Child Syndrome” in 1962.

Finally, a bell went off. States began to enact “mandatory reporting” laws for physicians and teachers, requiring them to alert authorities to any abuses they discovered. In 1974, a decade after the Civil Rights Act afforded protection against discrimination because of race, religion or ethnicity, another line could be added to that list – age, as the federal government passed Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.

It was into this new world of child protection that Aileen Deese joined the fight 36 years ago in Florida, and this year she is helping Prevent Child Abuse Hawaii celebrate its 30th anniversary here in the Islands.

She has been program director – and for much of the time its only employee – for the past 22 years. In order to cut costs in recent years, she has been forced to run the charity out of her home, and she relies on the help of hundreds of volunteers to get their message out.

“Our sole focus is prevention of abuse and neglect in Hawaii through education, advocacy and awareness programs,” says Deese. “We want to strengthen the families, give parents informa tion about how they can be stronger families, and help prevent child abuse and neglect.”

The first place the organization likes to get its message out at is where the children first start their lives, so you will find Prevent Child Abuse Hawaii at Kapiolani Hospital, informing new mothers on the importance of keeping a cool head when their newborns test their patience.

“We do a brochure for new mothers, and we go into the hospital and give each mother a packet about abuse and shaken baby syndrome – there are about 20,000 new births each year and we try to get one to each new family,” says Bonnie Parsons, president of the PCAH board.

Shaken baby syndrome, or as it is now known, abusive head trauma, occurs most often with new parents who have not yet learned how to sooth their newborn when the baby is crying incessantly. Out of frustration, sometimes these parents shake their child violently to try to calm it down, causing irreparable harm to the infant’s still unseated brain.

“I got a call from the head of the Department of Health that reminded us that we are the only agency that does a program on shaken baby syndrome,” says Deese. “It is a real serious form of child abuse. What happens when the parents shake the child is blindness, brain damage and death. So they asked me to expand the program.”

While such behavior is too abhorrent for most of us to even think about, the stresses of having children is something that any parent can relate to, and it is in how we deal with these situations that new parents must be educated. Even as far as we have come in the past 38 years, child abuse is still rampant.

Five children die every day in this country because of child abuse, with 80 percent of those deaths happening to children under the age of 4. Experts estimate that one child is abused per minute, having devastating effects on their self- esteem and skyrocketing their chances of drug addiction, juvenile delinquency and criminal behavior.

According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the estimated cost of child abuse and neglect in this country is $124 billion a year.

Locally, there were 4,200 cases reported in 2010 alone, and Deese says that authorities believe for every case reported, four cases go unreported, meaning even in our family-centric community here in the Islands, there were more than 20,000 cases of child abuse just two years ago.

As the center for disseminating information and awareness about child abuse, PCAH tries to become involved in anything family-related, so you will often see it at Baby Expos and Child and Youth Days. Judging its effectiveness is difficult for Deese to quantify, because much like if you have more DUI checkpoints, the number of DUIs will go up; the better PCAH does its job, the more child abuse cases come to light.

“It is hard to tell, because when we do a really good job of telling people who to call and what to do, you get a good number of reports, they go up like 20 percent,” says Deese.

Such numbers, though, only encourage Deese and others to work harder, and PCAH does conduct a few of its own functions each year, the two most popular being Breakfast with Santa held every December and the Teddy Bear Drive.

Breakfast with Santa has been held for the past 27 years at the Japanese Cultural Center as a way to raise funds for the organization, provide awareness of its cause and perhaps most importantly of the families, giving them a much-needed break during the holidays where children can play and meet Santa while the parents just relax with some eggs and pancakes.

One spectacular new way PCAH has to raise awareness manifests itself on the lawn surrounding the Capital, where there is a sprouting of hundreds of blue pinwheels each April as part of a nationwide campaign called Pinwheels for Prevention. Like so many whirling mushrooms, they appear each spring to represent the positive side of what PCAH does.

“The pinwheels do not represent every death in the state by child abuse, but it is a symbol of the prevention of child abuse, how to keep every kid safe,” says Deese.

Its biggest fundraiser of the year is coming Sept. 14 from 5:30 to 9 p.m., as it holds its 30th Anniversary Gala at The Willows. The theme is “In The Mood,” named after the Glenn Miller Orchestra tune from 1940, and everyone is encouraged to dress the part.

Music will be performed by vocalist Ginai, with her jazz stylings reminiscent of the era, and there will be “casino games” set up to win prizes. The food and drinks will be set up in stations to help people mill around, enjoy fellowship and a trip back in time.

Two key volunteers are to be honored at the event: Vince Barfield, a senior vice president with Bank of Hawaii, for his decade of service to the organization, and author Shirley Yuen, for the support she has given to the Never Shake A Keiki program.

While there will be lots of items in the silent auction, the big-ticket item this go-round is a brand-new Chevy Spark donated by Cutter Chevrolet. It’s not very often you can go to a fundraiser, especially one with a ticket price under $100, and have the chance of driving away in a new car.

For more information or to purchase tickets, call 951-0200 or go to preventchildabusehawaii.org.