Spring is in the air, and the pinwheels are sprouting throughout Pierce County.
Volunteers are planting hundreds of the spinning toys this month as part of Pinwheels for Prevention, a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of child abuse.
“It’s sort of a symbol of a happy, healthy childhood that every kid deserves,” said Jannis Bridges, dependency unit supervisor at Pierce County Juvenile Court. About 750 of the pinwheels are in place in front of the court at Remann Hall on Sixth Avenue in Tacoma.
The campaign, organized by Chicago-based Prevent Child Abuse America, started in 2008 as a grass-roots effort that expanded into a nationwide movement.
The pinwheels are placed by volunteers known as court appointed special advocates, who speak on the behalf of children in Juvenile Court. The CASA program started in 1978 after a judge hearing a case about a child realized nobody was speaking from the child’s perspective. There are 230 workers in the local program.
“The CASA’s perspective is really just an outside, objective point of view,” dependency unit supervisor Julie Lowery said.
There are 900 to 1,000 CASA programs across the United States. Anyone over 21 can be a volunteer if they pass a background check, a state Child Protective Services history check and complete 30 hours of training.
“We recruit them any way we can,” Bridges said, listing Craigslist posters and ad campaigns as ways to get the word out. “We are always trying various things because we always need about twice the number of CASAs that we have.”
At any given time in Pierce County, about 1,400 children have been removed from their parents because of abuse or neglect and placed in county custody, Lowery said.
“That’s just the ones that get reported and are known,” she said.
While the number of children in custody has remained relatively stable over the past 15 years, instances of physical abuse have increased in the last few years, Bridges said.
“Ten years ago, 80 percent of the cases might have been neglect due to drug and alcohol abuse, and then now we probably have at least 30 percent per month which are due to physical abuse — broken bones, bites, head injuries,” Lowery said. “No one in our system can figure out why there’s way more physical and sexual abuse cases. … It’s sort of bad when it makes you nostalgic for the days when it was mostly meth.”
Some people are reluctant to report suspected child abuse out of fear that CPS will take the child away from the family, Lowrey said. In reality, she said, that happens only in a small percentage of cases.
“Reporting doesn’t necessarily equate to removal from parents,” she said.
Most often, people referred to the agency receive help parenting their kids to prevent future abuse, Lowrey said.
“Prevention is hard,” Bridges said. “Not everyone is a mandated reporter, but anyone can report any concerns they have.”
In addition to reporting suspected abuse, Lowery said, members of the community can help prevent abuse by easing the stress on parents. Small acts of kindness, such as baby-sitting for a neighbor or friend to give the parents the night off, can make all the difference, she said.
Many volunteers come into the program concerned that working on child abuse cases will be depressing, Bridges said.
She maintains a positive attitude, however.
“I always have looked at it as, we’re appointed by the court when presumably the child’s life is at its lowest point,” she said. “We’re going to be part of that thing that sets things on an upward trajectory. I see it as a really hopeful job and a really positive one, where you can see the beginning of really good movement in that child’s life.”
“You get to be part of making things better.”