In March 2012, the Iredell County Department of Social Services saw more children come into foster care in one month, 31, than ever before in the organization’s history. This March, the number was the greatest since that record-breaking month.
“I hope we’re not on that upward trend again,” said DSS program administrator Lisa York, referencing the 19 children who have come under county care since March 1.
There are currently 155 children in DSS care, down from a record high of 207 a year ago. The challenges are seemingly never-ending, though, as the recent increase in numbers has forced several siblings to live apart.
Moving children into foster care is often driven by abusive or neglectful home environments and leaders of organizations in the area that combat the issue gathered Tuesday to spread the word — April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
“The problem of child abuse is huge,” said John Koppelmeyer, president of Barium Springs Home for Children. “The more resources that can come together … we can hopefully eliminate it. It represents an effort of collaboration.”
Organizers of Tuesday morning’s event made paper chains with a link for each report of abuse in the county last year. There were also small windmills set up that honored the lives of children who have died in recent years due to abuse or neglect from their caretaker.
“I hope there’s a day where we don’t have to have an event like this,” Statesville Mayor Costi Kutteh told the three dozen people who gathered outside the Iredell County Courthouse.
DSS received 1,147 reports of child abuse or neglect in 2012, the most in at least the last 10 years. York said about a third of those were substantiated and required services. The reports affected 2,490 children, 116 of whom had to eventually enter foster care.
“We’ve got new parents all the time,” said Amy Eisele, executive director of Iredell Exchange/SCAN. “The challenge is different always. Look at what has happened with the economy. They take that stress out on the children, or they do what was done to them as children.”
In 2011, 24 children, 10 of whom were age 2 or younger, died at the hands of their guardians in North Carolina. The Iredell County Public Library has a display set up this month where small chairs draped in black cloth are lined up against a wall to commemorate the lost lives.
District Court Judge Christine Underwood spoke to the crowd Tuesday about how parental neglect can lead to criminal problems. There are currently 184 pending cases in Iredell County juvenile court, 33 of which have been filed in 2013.
“Those are the cases that keep me up at night — children living with no food, or living in filthy conditions or with parents so focused on where their next fix is coming from, they forget to give their children the love and affection they need,” said Underwood.
Several nonprofit organizations in the county provide services that help fight the source and lessen the damage from child abuse. Appropriate Placement Options, Piedmont Mediation, Exchange/SCAN and Fifth Street Ministries are among the ones that are funded in part by United Way of Iredell County. United Way Executive Director Brett Eckerman said educating the public about how to find specific services would be crucial to stopping the problem.
“(Parents and children) need to know where to turn if they’re in a dangerous situation,” said Eckerman. “There’s a lot who of people who care and they need to know how to connect.”
From volunteering in the Guardian Ad Litem program to pursuing becoming a foster parent, there are many ways for anyone to get involved in the lives of the county’s more unfortunate children. But it’s not easy. Getting licensed to be a foster parent can take anywhere from six to nine months, and involves 10 weeks of classes and extensive background checks.
“We have to make sure that people we’re entrusting with these children are doing it for the right reasons and providing the best care possible,” York said. “It’s not just, ‘I want to do it,’ and you walk out with a child.”