OSWEGO, NY – Close to 150 people crowded into the Oswego High School’s media center Thursday night for a “Safety In Our Schools” community forum.
The Child Advocacy Center of Oswego County partnered with the Oswego City School District, the Oswego County Department of Social Services, the Huntington Family Centers of Syracuse and the Oswego County Child Protection Advisory Council to offer the program.
“I’m not sure you’ll learn anything new from me tonight. But I know I’ll learn something from you,” said Oswego County Undersheriff Gene Sullivan, one of the panelists.
“It’s something that is not unique to Oswego,” said Bill Crist, Oswego schools superintendent. “But, it is something we need to be able to have conversations about.”
“Children’s exposure to violence and abuse is a concern not only in Oswego County, but across the country,” said Karrie Damm, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Oswego County.
Not that long ago, if a young child had been abused they had to tell and re-tell what happened in several different offices – up to 15 different times, she said. Often, the stories would change during subsequent tellings, she noted.
When that happens, it lessens the chance of getting good enough evidence to take the case to court, she added.
Now, the Child Advocacy Center brings all the players under one roof, which allows the victim to have to tell what they went through so many times. On average, it is down to three times.
The center had 320 cases last year. The number of alleged offenders of those 320 kids – 266, Damm told the crowd.
“Of those, 134 were the parent(s), 10 were step-parents, 46 were an other relative, 12 were a parent’s boy of girl friend, 56 were an other known person (a babysitter or coach) and unknown – 8, which, when you do the math, only comes up to 3 percent,” she said.
The age of the alleged offenders range from under 13 year old – 10; 13 to 17 years old – 16. That means 26 of the alleged offenders are kids in school, Damm pointed out.
Also on the panel was Greg Heffner, DSS commissioner, Chief Assistant District Attorney Mark Moody, Undersheriff Sullivan Oswego Police Lt. Charles Searor and Meg Gilmore-Resnick of Huntington Family Services.
Helping keep children safe is a collaborative effort that involves everyone, the commissioner said.
“We rely on the community’s eyes and ears to tell us when there is a problem,” he said. “We can’t do this by ourselves.”
Searor agreed. “We can’t do it all. We don’t have a magic crystal ball,” he said.
One of the main goals of the forum is to enhance the lines of communication between parents, guardians and school representatives and between youth and their parents or guardians, Damm explained.
“The best treatment for these children is to talk openly about safety and boundaries and healthy sexuality, early and often,” Gilmore-Resnick said. “We have to break through the discomfort of talking about sexuality and abuse.”
Audience members asked the panel about a number of aspects related to children’s safety including harm reduction and violence prevention strategies in the home, school, and community.
Schools aren’t prisons, Crist noted. “They should be places where students feel calm, safe and well when they are there,” he said.
The district is continuing to look at ways it can upgrade its safety measures, including more cameras, he added.
Some questions concerned who reports what and when.
There is no specific hotline to call if someone is suspected of “acting out.” Panelists recommended calling 911.
Crist added that it’s best to err on the side of caution. He said he’d much rather take a call from a parent irate because an incident had been reported and not because there wasn’t any report and the child had been harmed.
Moody agreed. If you report something and it’s found to be nothing, that is OK, he said.
“It’s worse if you don’t report something and the abuse continues,” he said. “Nobody wants to be that person.”
“It’s an unfair burden to place on you to figure out whether or not it’s a righteous complaint,” Sullivan told the crowd. “We’ll do that. But you’ve got to let us know what it was you were told so that we have some place to start.”
“Communication is one of the most important tools in addressing safety in our schools. We welcome feedback from our community members,” Damm said.
The center is looking for volunteers to help with a Children’s Play Date later this spring.
“Anything you can do to play and bring joy into children’s lives. We’re not talking about abused kids; we’re talking about all of the kids in the county,” Damm told the audience.
For more information, call the Child Advocacy Center at 315-592-4453 or visit the OCSD website at www.oswego.org
To report cases of suspected child abuse, call the statewide hotline 1-800-342-3720. If you believe a child is in immediate danger – call 911.