Law enforcement, prosecutors, social workers and multiple volunteers in Harford County work every day to care for victims of child abuse, but preventing child abuse is not solely their responsibility.
“It definitely takes an entire village to keep children safe,” Ross DiEdoardo, director of CASA of Harford County, said Wednesday during the eighth annual Pinwheel Vigil, held in front of the Harford County Courthouse in downtown Bel Air in honor of April being Child Abuse Prevention Month.
“It’s not just the responsibility of social services. It’s not just the responsibility of law enforcement,” DiEdoardo said of preventing child abuse. “It’s the responsibility of every single person in the community.”
About 40 people attended the vigil Wednesday evening. The event was hosted by CASA — Court Appointed Special Advocates — and the Harford County Child Advocacy Center. Both organizations work on behalf of victims of child abuse and neglect, with CASA volunteers supporting children who have suffered abuse as they navigate the court system and CAC personnel investigating crimes against children, working to help victims heal and conducting public outreach efforts to prevent child abuse, according to the organizations’ respective websites.
The event included remarks from DiEdoardo; Capt. Lee Dunbar, commander of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigations Division; Col. William Davis, the Sheriff’s Office chief deputy; and Jerry Reyerson, director of the Harford County Department of Social Services.
Reyerson noted the impacts of child abuse and neglect are “in my view each and every day.”
“We have the resources to solve this problem,” he said. “First we choose to own it, so being here [at the vigil] is part of the ownership.”
Dunbar, who headed the Harford County Narcotics Task Force before becoming the CID commander last summer, talked about how he has learned “how deeply this epidemic goes, of child abuse in all forms.”
The county’s Family Justice Center, which supports victims of domestic violence, is under Dunbar’s jurisdiction as CID commander. He noted the Family Justice Center and the Child Advocacy Center handled close to 600 abuse cases last year, plus hundreds more cases were handled by patrol deputies or other agencies.
Davis, the chief deputy, said child abuse is “almost like a dirty little secret” and does not always get attention unless there is a high-profile case “sensationalized” in the media.
He expressed thanks to the leaders of organizations such as CASA, the CAC and social services.
“The work they do every day to protect kids and make sure that their rights are taken care of is very important,” Davis said.
Reyerson said there are 205 children in foster care as of Wednesday. He is also a guardian for a number of adults and cited the case of one man who has developmental disabilities and is a survivor of child abuse and neglect. Reyerson said the man makes sure every door is unlocked when he is in a facility, a reflection of his past trauma.
He stressed the need for parents and children to communicate with each other, rather than spending all their time looking at smartphones, so adults can develop empathy for their children’s needs. He said his agency offers a Nurturing Parenting Program so parents can develop empathy and skills to nurture their children.
“A child that’s abused, the best place for that child is with their parents — my foster care system is not the answer,” Reyerson said.
Amber Shrodes, director of the Harford County Department of Community Services, presented a proclamation to DiEdoardo. She said “every child deserves to grow up on a home safe from harm.”
“I want to thank you and your staff and all of your volunteers and everyone who is here today,” Shrodes told DiEdoardo. “Thank you so much for helping us raise awareness.”
Several people in attendance read stanzas of the poem “I am a Child,” by Lela Albert.
“I am a child, that has been wounded by all kinds of abuse,” one stanza states. “I am a child, that needs someone to take care of me.”
Attendees, including adults and children, then planted blue pinwheels in the flower beds on the courthouse grounds, a display that will be visible from Main Street.
DiEdoardo said he loves the pinwheel as a symbol of Child Abuse Prevention Month, as it indicates “a childlike innocence and a reminder of the whimsical childhood kind of ideal that we like to see,” and he noted they remain in place each year regardless of how bad the weather becomes.
“I always like to think that, even through all the weathering of storms that these kids have been through, they keep spinning and they keep going, and they can be very resilient,” he said.
Matt Gullion, a Bel Air Police Department detective, attended with his 4-year-old daughter, Graylyn.
Gullion is the Bel Air Police representative for the multi-agency CAC, and he handles all child abuse and neglect investigations in the town. He is also coordinator of Bel Air’s DART program — Drug Abatement Response Team — and works with children who have suffered trauma and abuse as a result of Harford County’s ongoing opioid epidemic.
“Children, honestly, are our most precious resource and our future,” he said as he watched Graylyn, the youngest of his three children, play on the courthouse grounds.
“If they have a bright future, that means we’re going to have a bright future, too,” he added.