Kerr County continues to fight against child abuse

April is National Child Abuse Awareness Month, and there's still plenty of work to be done.

It's a conversation that we seem to keep having over and over again. Whether it's physical, sexual or emotional, child abuse is something we can't seem to escape.

April is National Child Abuse Awareness Month, and on Thursday, The Lead hosted a panel of Kerr County experts about the problem. District Attorney Lucy Wilke, who represents the 216th District Attorney's office, led the conversation along with Brent Ives, executive director of Hill Country Crisis Council, Kellie Early, president of the Kerr County Child Services Board, and Stephenie Cantu, program director at Kid's Advocacy Place.

"It's really important that we all talk about it," Wilke said. "So many times during jury selection, we have people who raise their hand and say, I can't be on this jury. I can't be fair and impartial because I am opposed to child abuse, and I always say, well, sure we all are. Even the defense attorneys opposed to child abuse."


Here's how nonprofit organization Childhelp breaks down the issue:

  • There are more than 4 million annual referrals to child protection agencies involving more than 4.3 million children (a referral can include multiple children).
  • The United States has one of the worst records among industrialized nations – losing five children every day to child abuse and neglect.
  • In 2019 alone, state agencies found over 656,000 victims of child maltreatment, but that only tells part of the story.

In Kerr County, the Kerrville Police Department has begun filing detailed crime information with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and in 2019 the department investigated nine rapes — six involving people younger than 19 years old, including two children under the age of nine.

"I think we all live in our bubble, and so, sometimes we don't realize what's really going on in Kerr County until you get involved in some of these organizations that deal with child abuse," said Kellie Early, who has long advocated for abused children through her work with Court Appointed Special Advocates. This volunteer group works with the courts to provide children with an objective voice so judges can make informed decisions.

Early currently leads the Kerr County Child Services Board, a group with a mandate from the commissioner's court and Judge Rob Kelly to ensure the well-being of children cared for by Child Protective Services. This extra level of attention helps provide security for children who have suffered abuse.

"Case workers will purchase something, keep their receipt, and they will send us an email and tell us what the situation was, and we will vote it as a board, and a lot of times, we try to reimburse them," Early said.

Kerr County has numerous services and agencies committed to combatting child abuse, but it can still be a struggle.

"There's a lot more awareness now, but the awareness is so general," Wilke said. "It needs to be more specific."

Ives agrees with Wilke's assessment and that there are plenty of challenges in addressing abuse because so many victims know the perpetrator.

"Well, I think the underlying issue here is that child sexual abuse continues to be a hidden epidemic here," Ives said. "As Lucy talked about, children are not going to just self disclose in most case nor adults for that matter. There's so many barriers that are in place to prevent those disclosures and so this awareness and prevention month is important."

Despite our fear of strangers, something instilled in children, familiarity is usually the No. 1 factor connecting the victim to the perpetrator and returning to the KPD statistics. Only two of the 2019 rapes involved strangers.

"There's a small percentage of those that perpetrated against children that are pedophiles, that are hardwired to to to hurt children," Ives said. "But the larger percentage are offenders who are situational and who are are neighbors and who are uncles or our family members and so that message needs to get out into the community that hey, these individuals that perpetrate on children are here in our community."

There have been improvements to the law enforcement response to abuse allegations through the years.

"When I first started, we didn't even have forensic interviewers here," Wilke said. "We didn't have a child advocacy center here. The child had to be transported to San Antonio, and we didn't have sexual abuse nurse examiners here. We do now."

Some of those improvements are a cross-organizational collaboration.

"We strive to work with a multidisciplinary team," Cantu said of her work. "So, we work closely with the district attorney's office, with law enforcement, and with child protective services. We aid in the investigation of child abuse. So, we give the kids a friendly, safe place to come and tell their story."

Part one of our conversation with Lucy Wilke, Kellie Early, Brent Ives and Stephanie Cantu:

Part one of our conversation with Lucy Wilke, Kellie Early, Brent Ives and Stephanie Cantu:

For a child who has experienced trauma, that early feeling of safety is essential.

"We make sure that they have an advocate that's going to ensure that they get the resources they need whether we need to make a referral to the child services board or we need to make a referral for counseling, for medical needs," Cantu said. "And then we follow that case throughout the life of it to hopefully, you know, fruition to sentencing."

Cantu said an essential part of providing awareness rests with parents to be candid with their children, including not being shy about anatomy.

"We also have to teach our kids what their body parts are called," Cantu said. "We see that so often where there are these cutesy little names or they're called like a food group or something, you know, like a strawberry, a cupcake or a cookie."

To that point, Cantu's organization, Kid's Advocacy Place, is hosting an event from 6-7 p.m. on April 14 at the Hill Country Youth Event Center in the Happy State Expo Hall. The event will provide parents and children in the sixth grade with tools to understand the signs of child abuse and how to protect the community.

"That's why it's so important that children be comfortable making disclosures and telling because that will prevent other abuse," said Wilke, adding that there are continual process improvements in her 25 years of service.

Cantu said she's a believer in the idea education and enforcement will help end abuse. Wilke, however, said she believes we still have a ways to go toward realizing that dream.

"I will still have work to do," Wilke said.

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