Emma’s House hosts variety of activities for Child Abuse Prevention Month

By RUSS LAWRENCE – for the Ravalli Republic

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and in Ravalli County Emma’s House Children’s Advocacy Center is spearheading efforts to make Bitterroot Valley communities safer places for kids.

Several weeks’ worth of events will culminate on Saturday, May 3, with activities that demonstrate the valley’s support for families and kids.

“Join us in protecting kids” is the theme for the month, according to Kierstin Schmitt of Emma’s House, and among those volunteering to help keep kids safe is the Montana Army National Guard. A crew from the Hamilton National Guard unit will erect a decorative – and functional – picket fence around the nonprofit’s Hamilton home.

Supporters can “buy” a picket and have their name placed on it, in a new “Pickets for Prevention” campaign to support child abuse prevention efforts by Emma’s House.

The fence will provide a safe area for children to play, to visit the butterfly garden, or visit with a pet. Staff Sgt. Kristie Ruttenbur, Readiness NCO and facility manager at the Hamilton Armory, initiated the project because she knew that the kids needed to feel safe in the yard, located at 800 N. Second St., on the corner of two busy streets near McDonald’s.

That “fence-raising” will happen on Saturday, May 3, a busy day at Emma’s House, as they also stage their annual “We Care About Kids” bike parade (see related story).

Emma’s House was established as a safe place for children and families to talk with sympathetic professionals about child abuse and neglect. Kids and parents may call the organization directly, but more often cases are referred to them by cooperating law enforcement agencies from throughout Ravalli County.

Through a multi-disciplinary team and numerous public agencies and partners, Emma’s House coordinates the response to instances of child abuse and neglect, and aids in investigations and prosecutions. Their staff provides ongoing advocacy and resources for victims and their families, to promote healing and a positive outcome.

Emma’s House provides a child-friendly space in which its staff conducts forensic interviews with children who have reported abuse, provides medical exams specific to suspected or alleged child abuse, crisis intervention and counseling for child victims and their families, victim advocacy in the criminal justice system, community outreach and education, and referrals to community support and social services. It is not, however, a shelter for victims.

Each year, Emma’s House receives more than 120 referrals for cases of suspected child abuse or neglect, and those are just the cases reported to law enforcement. The problem surely runs deeper than that.

That’s why they are increasing their focus on prevention, and Child Abuse Prevention Month provides a great framework for that effort.

“A healthy community is one that provides activities for kids and families,” said Emma’s House executive director Val Widmer. “We do have that here,” she said, citing the May 3 bike ride as just one example.

This month, Emma’s House staff members are busy speaking to community groups, mental health professionals and schools, and hosting public events to get the word out about how to prevent child abuse, and what resources are available to victims and families.

“Contact us if your group would like a presentation,” said Schmitt. Their office phone is (406) 363-7216.

Child abuse prevention hinges on supporting parents and families, and educating and empowering kids. Providing good parenting skills and coping strategies for new parents is important, as is letting kids know what is considered inappropriate behavior, and what to do if they experience or witness it.

Public awareness is also important, making conversations about child abuse easier to have, and more informed. Community members need to know the signs of child abuse, and how to react responsibly when they see them.

Widmer observed that those signs are usually age dependent, with younger children exhibiting behavioral changes, acting out, or perhaps an increased incidence of bed-wetting. In older children, it may manifest as a sudden drop in school performance, a change in the friends they hang out with, or changes in their habits.

She suggested that parents keep track of what their kids are looking at online, and what apps they have on their internet-connected devices.

“It’s not about privacy,” counselled Widmer, when anything that kids may access or post online is part of a vast, public web.

If an adult or child suspects abuse or neglect, they have a range of options, from talking with a parent or responsible adult, a teacher or clergy member to, if appropriate, contacting law enforcement via 9-1-1, or calling the Montana Department of Health and Human Services abuse hotline at 866-820-5437.

Most children receive some classroom education on how to protect themselves, and how to deal with inappropriate contact, but in the end it’s every adult’s responsibility to keep kids safe, said Widmer.

For more information or to donate to Emma’s House, call them at (406) 363-7216 or visit them online at www.emmashousecac.org. More resources on child abuse and prevention are available online at www.childwelfare.gov, or from Darkness To Light, at www.d2l.org.

Hannah Honey