WATERVILLE — The idea of child abuse hit close to home for former Headstart teacher and mother Margaret Rodrigue.

“I have this very distinct memory from one of my first days in the classroom. This little girl came in during circle time and she crawled on my lap,” Rodrigue, 32, said. “I went to sing a song with her, and she said ‘Ow.’ Her mother’s boot was imprinted in her back, and it was one of my first reports of child abuse I ever had to make.”

About three dozen people gathered outside of City Hall on Castonguay Square Wednesday evening for a vigil and “Speak Out” panel to prevent child abuse and neglect. Several community leaders spoke at the event, including Police Chief Joseph Massey.

“As a responsible parent, I find it difficult how a parent, caregiver or any adult can abuse a child in any form,” Massey said. “They look to us for security and care and comfort. You can imagine how traumatic it is when they can’t trust their support system.”

In 2013, more than 19,000 reports of child abuse were made statewide, according to Deb Rich of the Child Abuse and Neglect Council for the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program. Of that 19,000, more than 3,000 were reported in Kennebec and Somerset counties combined.

In addition to Massey and Rich, several other community leaders attended, including Waterville Mayor Karen Heck, who spoke at the event, Sen. Colleen Lachowicz, D-Waterville, and Kennebec and Somerset counties District Attorney Maeghan Maloney.

Also in attendance were Morrigan Knox-McLeod and her seven-year-old daughter, Ava. As a mother, Knox-McLeod recognized the importance of knowing the signs for child abuse and neglect, but she thought it was equally important that her daughter understood the same signs, had the same education and empowerment.

“It’s important for her to be educated and understand what is OK,” Knox-McLeod said. “(Ava) needs to know that it’s OK to talk to me if anything happened with her or if she thinks it’s happening to her friends.”

After the vigil, a “Speak Out” panel was held in the Women’s Initiative room in the basement of The Center, which featured several community leaders, including representatives from the Waterville Police Department, the Kennebec and Somerset counties Children’s Advocacy Center, KVCAP and the Family Violence Project.

The event’s aim was to highlight the persistent problem of child abuse and neglect and ways of preventing or reporting it, with the focus on the fact that April is Child Abuse Prevention Month.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to gather and talk about it anyway,” Massey said prior to the vigil. “But it’s an opportunity for us to bring to the forefront the issues of child abuse and prevention. We’d like to think our children are our most precious resource and people would not abuse them. It’s necessary that we meet to make sure that we bring this out publicly.”

The vigil and rally came the day after a statewide child abuse and neglect council event at the Hall of Flags in Augusta.

In addition to blue pinwheels that were passed around and decorated the railing to City Hall, Rodrigue was handing out peace rocks with a story viewing child abuse from the child’s perspective. Having done several public outings supporting child abuse prevention, Rodrigue sees every event, no matter how large, as helping the greater cause.

“It’s a ripple effect,” she said. “If the core people are coming here, then we can pass that message along. If three dozen people talk to one person each, even if you help one life, that’s all that matters.”

Jesse Scardina — 861-9239 [email protected] Twitter: @jessescardina