FARMINGTON — For over 30 years, the Franklin County Children’s Task Force has been working to prevent child abuse and neglect from occurring in its region. Instead of addressing the issue as a matter that is confined within the walls of individual homes, however, the task force seeks to prevent child abuse on a community level — providing families with the support and resources they need to be strong and healthy families.

On Saturday morning, Meetinghouse Park in Farmington rang with the sound of children’s giggles and excitement as they and their families sipped hot chocolate while waiting for the start of one of the task force’s signature fundraisers, Kids Walk for Kids.

The 2 1/2-mile walk, which is in its 25th year, raises money and awareness in hopes of combating child abuse and neglect in Franklin County by helping support families.

“We try to get various opportunities throughout the year to get families together,” said Doug Saunders, the organization’s community coordinator, “to give them an opportunity to strengthen their own families, with the end goal of fostering resilient and healthy families (in Franklin County).”

The agency holds the walk annually, each year attracting about 80 participants and raising nearly $5,000 in pledges and contributions to fund the various parenting and family programs the task force provides in the Franklin County community.

The walk draws an array of community members, including young families with baby slings and strollers and groups representing local businesses. Even dogs and cyclists were welcome to join the two-hour loop around Farmington’s downtown.

Michelle Sullivan, of Temple, participated in Saturday’s walk with her 7-year-old son, Wyatt, and a group of her fellow co-workers from Franklin Health Pediatrics, as they try to do every year.

“You try to help the children, but it’s also about taking time to show support for the families as well,” Sullivan said. “There is a great need in our community for that.”

Franklin County was identified as one of three counties in Maine with the highest rates of child abuse and neglect, said Renee Whitley, the agency’s executive director, with Somerset and Androscoggin being the other two. Of those three counties, Franklin County has the highest rate of sexual abuse.

Whitley said several risk factors play into the rate of abuse and neglect, and that they are different based on the community and the family. The risks can include domestic violence, substance abuse, untreated mental illness, poverty, unstable living conditions, children who have severe behavioral issues, as well as a families involvement with the court system.

In response to the rising rates of child abuse in Maine’s rural counties, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is working with the Franklin County Children’s Task Force to help establish services that would seek to prevent rather than just respond to instances of abuse or neglect.

“The state is recognizing the need for prevention services. We’re seeing more children going into care. We’re seeing a higher rate of substance abuse in our state. We’re seeing more babies born addicted to drugs. So I think that there is just a recognition that we need to start working on the front end in preventing some of these things rather than always having to respond to things and chase our tails,” Whitley said.

The agency has long been providing parenting resources and education programs throughout the county, but by pairing with DHHS, they are going to be able to give parents access to social workers who can work with the parents one-on-one to address specific problems they may be having with their children.

Whitley says, for example, if a mother says at a doctor’s appointment that her child is experiencing sleeping difficulties, resulting in frustration and exhaustion for both the parent and the child, having access to a social worker who can offer real-life strategies would allow the mother to “recognize that it is a normal process that the child is going through, that she is going through, and that it is OK to feel this way. This is how you need to deal with it instead of lashing out at the child.”

Whitley describes the prevention process as a triangle. The agency’s broad community-based messages of healthy parenting methods lie at the bottom with a wide reach, and as the message goes up the triangle, it becomes more focused with more intensive programs and resources for specific problems.

Offered by the task force are in-school programs for the children themselves, focusing on behavioral and emotional processing. The group also offers parenting classes held at schools in the evening, with dinner and child care provided in order to eliminate any obstacles to attending, Whitley said.

The agency also offers more focused programs such as 1-2-3 Magic, which teaches parents how to address disciplinary problems that their children may present; as well as the Nurturing Program, which looks at the roots of parents’ parenting, how they were taught to be parents and what they learned from their childhood.

Next month a male parenting class will be offered at the Franklin County Jail, with a class being held twice a week for five weeks.

The varied levels of programs and resources offered by the agency is what Whitley says is necessary to have an effect on preventing child abuse and neglect — by making it a message heard by everyone they are acknowledging that parenting is a hard job, but that as a community parents can receive support and help.

“Child abuse is not a family issue, it is a community issue. Families need to be supported in the communities that they live in, we are taking the approach of it being a ecological community problem,” Whitley said.

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

[email protected]

Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate

 


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