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Harford's first vigil for child abuse held in Bel Air

Abusive BehaviorChild AbuseTimes Square

Instead of flowers, neat rows of blue, foil pinwheels stood "planted" Wednesday on the front lawn of the Harford County Circuit Courthouse.

Each one represented one of the roughly 240 Harford children who suffer from abuse and neglect each year.

The pinwheel garden was part of the first candlelight vigil organized by CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Harford County, in honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month, to raise awareness of children's need for healthy environments.

As a nationwide idea that has been done in places like New York City's Times Square, the pinwheel "is something that really defines and displays the innocence of childhood," CASA director Ross DiEdoardo told the audience of about 30 gathered in front of the courthouse.

"These children are incredibly resilient, with all they have been through," he said, noting he calls them survivors of abuse instead of victims.

That resilience is also symbolized by the pinwheel, as "through the wind and the rain, it keeps on spinning," he explained.

The pinwheels were originally only supposed to be up through Wednesday because of concerns they would be destroyed by downtown partygoers over the weekend, but DiEdoardo said he was hoping to be allowed to keep them up through Friday.

He also hoped the annual event would educate the community about the need to recognize signs of abuse and develop avenues for it to be reported.

"We need to educate ourselves so we are aware [of] what does child abuse look like," he said.

Many people are reluctant to get the legal system involved or to interfere in a family's business, he said, but "that is just a huge mistake."

"Every system has flaws, but I think we still have to use our best judgment any time" a child is being hurt, he said.

There is also only so much Harford residents can do, as "we really need to have the cooperation of the entire country," he said.

"We can only do so much here, but it's people like you, who are here standing, that want to make a difference," he said.

Sheriff Jesse Bane said he recently attended a breakfast in Baltimore County where an African missionary spoke about the Maasai tribe of Kenya and Tanzania, which has "furious" warriors, but whose members traditionally ask one question upon greeting each other: "How are your children?"

He also noted the Maasai have no child abuse.

"If what we would call an uncivilized tribe of people can eliminate child abuse, why can't our country do this? We are the most powerful country in the world," Bane said.

Harford is fortunate to have organizations like CASA and the court system, but it still has a long way to go in battling child abuse and neglect, as do other jurisdictions, he said.

"I ask you: Do we have the village in Harford County that it takes to raise a child? I would tell you that I don't think so," he said.

Theodore Hart, who presides over child abuse cases in Harford County's Circuit Court, agreed the community has to step up to address the problem.

"There's all sorts of abuse, neglect, different challenges that parents face," Hart said about the cases he sees. "That is really the difficulty, that parents sometimes face challenges that are just beyond their capacity."

He said he is grateful for the many agencies working daily to protect children and for the volunteers who make CASA run.

"So much can be done once the information is brought to the attention of the courts," he said. "It only happens when the community steps up."

The Bel Air Lions Club showed its support by donating $500 to CASA, Lions Club member John A. Verbillis said.

"We are always looking for worthy community causes," he said, adding his wife is with CASA and his family has been active in foster care.

Sharon Lipford, deputy director of the county's community services department, presented a proclamation to DiEdoardo on behalf of the county.

The Susquehanna Singers performed several songs, including "You Are the New Day" and "Song of Peace (Finlandia)," as those in attendance stood briefly with lit candles as night fell.

DiEdoardo said he was "overwhelmed" by the response to the first event and attendees seemed pleased.

Bel Air's Abigail Allan and Samantha Villamagna, both 16 years old and "best friends," said they believe in the idea of the vigil.

"I just wanted to support it because I know some people who have been abused," Samantha said. "I think it's a good thing to address to the public."

Abigail, whose mother works with CASA, added she wanted to "be that person" who gives a voice to those who do not have one.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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