TALLAHASSEE -‑ The state’s Department of Children and Families is launching a new public awareness campaign with Lauren Book, a sexual abuse survivor and advocate, to ensure more people are reporting abuse, even if the suspect is not a direct caregiver.
The campaign is part of a new state law, which took effect in October, that was sparked by the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal at Penn State. In addition to bolstering penalties for unreported crimes, the law clarifies that it’s everyone’s moral and “legal obligation” to report abuse, said DCF Secretary David Wilkins at a Monday press conference with Book, president and CEO of the Lauren’s Kids Foundation.
The state hired 47 new workers to handle more calls to the child abuse hotline, Wilkins said, noting that the number of calls jumped 16 percent from September to October. The hotline receives more than 300,000 calls a year, and of that number, 80 percent are referred for investigations.
The $262,000 public awareness campaign, called “Don’t Miss the Signs” will be a multimedia and educational approach featuring public service announcements, billboards and printed materials to highlight the age-appropriate physical and psychological clues to abuse, which include regressive behavior like thumb sucking and bed-wetting, being easily startled and missing school.
Among the reasons for concern:
* One in three girls and one in five boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18.
* 95 percent of sexual abuse is preventable, Book says.
* In 2011, 126 children and infants died in Florida from verified abuse and neglect – the biggest causes were drowning and unsafe sleeping.
Book, who was a victim of sexual abuse by her family’s nanny from the time she was 11 to 17, said she also wants victims of abuse to call the hotline.
“If you are having somebody touching you and it makes you feel uncomfortable, make the call,” said Book. “I know what it is to be a victim in that position, where you feel like you are all alone and no one has your back … I think it’s important kids know they’re not alone.”
Under the new law, the hotline will also accept calls about suspects who aren’t direct caregivers – in the past those callers were told to call their local law enforcement agency, which discouraged some reporters.
The multimedia effort is part of $1.5 million that Book’s foundation received from the Legislature to create an educational and outreach campaign, which includes the Safer, Smarter Kids curriculum distributed to every public kindergarten in Florida.
But Book says there’s a greater need for a “standardized educational plan”. “It’s just as important as reading and writing.”
“Prevention is key,” Book said. “We spend zero time, before Safer Smarter Kids came along, educating our kids on prevention. Pedophiles spend 100 percent of their time thinking about how they’re going to offend against our children … We need to do more.”
To report abuse call 1-800-962-2873 or go to www.floridaabusehotline.com.
To learn more about the campaign and signs of abuse: www.dontmissthesigns.org
Rochelle Koff, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau