Valley organizations work together for abused children

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HARLINGEN — His face still burns hot long after his mother slapped him so hard he hit the floor.

He tells no one.

The screams and insults settle deep into her soul, an open wound which cannot be healed.

She tells no one.

The two children go about their day forcing smiles they do not feel and speaking of the usual things and the mundane things which conceal the agony within.

The monstrosities visited upon the innocents, the yelling, the hitting, the clandestine touching of rough hands on young skin, can make the victims feel isolated and alone. In their minds, no one has ever experienced these losses except them, no one understands, and there is no one to talk to.

But there are people to talk to, oh so many waiting to help.

In fact there is a network of people and organizations spread across the Valley ready to help any hour of the day or the night any child in need of all manner of help.

Blue Sunday Child Abuse prevention, Valley Haven Inc., the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), the Children’s Bereavement Center, juvenile court judges, and school counselors endeavor to assist children in crisis.

The Valley’s child advocates are spending this month bringing attention to the realities of child abuse, but in reality they do this every day of the year.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, an initiative by Prevent Child Abuse America, but these organizations and their devoted members work every moment of every day of the year to support children in crisis.

In public schools, teachers and administrators often are the first line of defense for a child in crisis, said Sylvia Gamboa, director of guidance and counseling at the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District.

“In our school district, all of our staff, anybody who is in contact with students is trained with child abuse prevention training,” Gamboa said. “We make it very clear to our staff that if there is a child who exhibits any signs or symptoms of child abuse, we have to report that to child protective services within 48 hours. And that is a mandate, so we take that very seriously.”

At the 30th birthday party for Blue Sunday Child Abuse Prevention, Cornelia Garza from the Texas Department of Child and Family Services, gave sobering numbers about child abuse fatalities in the Valley and across Texas.

Such is the reason cases must be reported.

“It is important for people in our community to know that if they see something, if they suspect abuse and neglect in a child, that it is reported,” said Garza, who is the faith-based and community engagement specialist for TDCFS.

“You don’t have to have clear and convincing evidence,” she said. “It specifically says suspect. If there is a suspicion of abuse and neglect of a child, call it in.”

Garza works closely with Janet Magee, founder of Blue Sunday Child Abuse Prevention. Garza has pointed out many times the valuable service Magee and her connections provide for kids and their families needing immediate assistance.

“Our goals are to meet the needs of children and broken families here in the Rio Grande Valley,” Magee said. “We want to meet the needs of broken families at the local level.”

Such a relationship between faith-based organizations and state agencies at one time was not allowed, but that has all changed. Garza and other state employees may have emergencies in the middle of the night in which children or even their families need a roof over their head and some basic necessities. Blue Sunday is the place to call.

When Blue Sunday started the National Day of Prayer for abused children, a network developed between interested churches who wish to assist the needs of abused children and broken families.

“We want churches to look at the needs of children as their home mission project,” Magee said.

One of the endeavors of Blue Sunday and its network is to create a more positive experience for children in foster care.

“We want to tell them how they can access their free education and what they need to do to make a living,” Magee said. “The next thing we want to do is teach them the importance of sobriety. Most of these kids are in foster care because of a drug- or alcohol-related incident, so we want them to not do the same thing. The third thing we want to do is introduce them to faith.”

Magee’s reference to drug and alcohol-related situations rings clear to many people assisting kids in crisis.

Judge Adela Kowalski-Garza, of the 484th state District Court, sees this as a major problem with minors in court. She sees kids who have endured sexual assault, verbal and emotional abuse, beatings and serious neglect turning to substances to numb the pain.

People in pain often ways to disconnect themselves from their traumas. They may withdraw physically or emotionally or mentally. They may become promiscuous or avoid any physical contact on any level. And since drugs and alcohol were major factors in their parents abusing them, the natural reaction is to resort to the same behavior.

Drug abuse such as smoking concentrated THC with a vape pen can lead to a felony charge. So the child has already been numbing her traumatic home life with drugs and reckless behavior, and now she has to carry a felony conviction throughout her life, a constant reminder of her past ordeals.

This is why Kowalski-Garza always works her juvenile cases with the perspective of determining why the child has been acting out.

“It’s very important for a child to know that being a victim of abuse is important for the court to know, not only to help with that child with psychological problems through counseling but also so we can understand the behavior,” Kowalski-Garza said. “The purpose of the juvenile court is rehabilitation, redirection of the child. That’s one of the main goals.”