The group in the restaurant was getting up to leave.

They’d obviously had a fun lunch — several generations talking and laughing long past when their plates were emptied.

As they got up and put on their coats, a young mother made her reluctant toddler son hug and kiss several people he obviously didn’t want to hug and kiss.

Cute, huh? A rite of childhood.

But my friend, who works as an advocate for sexual abuse prevention and education, had a different take.

“I hate to see that,” she said.

​And, as Child Abuse Prevention Month kicks off in Maine with a slew of events this week, we’re reminded that child abuse and neglect is not a simple problem that “regular” people are insulated from.

Those of us who believe our exposure to child abuse amounts to looking at the mug shots in the newspaper and sighing with relief that guys like that aren’t anywhere around our kids need to take a broader view.

One thing people who work with children and in abuse prevention fields point out is that the problem is complex; it’s not a black and white issue that can be easily divided into us and them.

When asked later to elaborate on her thoughts in that restaurant, my friend said in an email, “It’s not so much that people aren’t told that kids have a right to their body — it’s that they haven’t internalized it and don’t believe it.

“We still pick kids up and hug/kiss/tickle without their consent and/or” tell them to give the person a hug. “And I think that seemingly little thing can translate into broader issues of not recognizing boundaries — their own and others.”

That’s one of the many thoughts people who work in the field — and because abuse is so complex “the field” is almost any job that involves children or abuse — think the public should know about child abuse.

Because as much as we know, most of the general public is unaware of many of the deeper issues that surround the topic.

Rallies and vigils are great at promoting the basics of awareness, but until the deeper issues are understood, the number of children who are abused in Maine won’t start decreasing.

When asked if there’s one thing they’d like people to know about child abuse that they don’t think is general knowledge, here’s what some of the people in the field said:

“So many kids in Maine right now are struggling due to poverty, homelessness, parents’ substance abuse problems and conflicts in the home,” said Libby McCullum, MaineCASA program manager. Her organization provides court appointed special advocates for children who help represent abused and neglected children in the state’s welfare system.

“I remind people when I talk to them about volunteering as a court-appointed special advocate to look around their child’s class the next day, because I guarantee many of their children’s classmates likely came to school hungry and saw and heard some horrible and even terrifying events the night before.”

She said that many, if not most, of those kids “will make it through and be kind, loving and good citizens.”

“All it takes sometimes is one caring adult that a child can rely on for reassurance and positive support.”

She added, “Maybe that person is a grandparent, but maybe it is a teacher, a bus driver, a neighbor, a coach and of course sometimes a CASA volunteer. There are a lot of adults in Maine who step up every day to listen, to provide guidance and support and sometimes just give a hug to a kid who is carrying heavy feelings from home to school one day.

“Those small but profound acts of kindness can give that kid the hope and the encouragement to want to do better with ‘the hands they were dealt.’”

McCullum’s bottom line?

“I want Maine people to know you can absolutely make a difference in a child’s life and everyone should try.”

Rita Furlow, a senior policy analyst for the Maine Children’s Alliance, echoes McCullum — that people being there for kids is the first step toward prevention.

“While most people recognize what a serious problem child abuse and neglect is,” she said, “what most people don’t know is that solutions exist — including prevention.”

She said that children who experience abuse or neglect can have what scientists call toxic stress responses, which can disrupt the pathways in the brain.

“Yet this research also tells us that there is a lot we can do to buffer this toxic stress for kids,” she said. “We need to ensure that children have supportive, stable relationships with caring adults. So — when we provide home visiting, which improves families’ understanding of child development, we are putting in place a preventive system that catches kids before they fall. When we provide access to caring adults in places like preschools, we are putting in place a preventive system that can help to rewire the brain.

“In other words, if we want strong, healthy young children who will lead our communities tomorrow, we have to invest in the kinds of supports and structures they need today.”

The connection between domestic violence and child abuse “is a significant one,” said Julia Colpitts, executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

Colpitts shared some information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that drives this fact home:

The department’s website says that “research suggests that in an estimated 30 to 60 percent of the families where either domestic violence or child maltreatment is identified, it is likely that both forms of abuse exist.

“Studies show that for victims who experience severe forms of domestic violence, their children also are in danger of suffering serious physical harm. In a national survey of over 6,000 American families, researchers found that 50 percent of men who frequently assaulted their wives also abused their children.

“Other studies demonstrate that perpetrators of domestic violence who were abused as children are more likely to physically harm their children.”

Charles Rumsey, deputy chief of the Waterville police, said he thinks people are aware that police are concerned about child abuse and “thoroughly investigate” complaints.

“Many people may not realize that when there are concerns about possible child abuse, they should call either the police or DHHS themselves — as soon as possible,” Rumsey said. “Folks may think that it’s not their job or not their business or that ‘someone else will do it,’ but the truth is, someone has to call us so that we can begin the task of finding out whether a child is being mistreated and make them safe.

“Making this community a safe place for our kids is everyone’s business.”

While these advocates for children all have different specific concerns, their ultimate message is the same: Child abuse isn’t an us and them issue.

By the time the mug shots are in the paper, it’s too late. It’s up to everyone to do what they can from the beginning to prevent child abuse.

Maureen Milliken is news editor for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at [email protected]. Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month.