Actress Kathleen Turner appeared at the Fair Lakes Barnes & Noble last Saturday on behalf of non-profit organization Childhelp USA. Turner was in Fairfax to promote April as Child Abuse Prevention Month. As a celebrity ambassador for Childhelp USA, Turner volunteered her time to read to children and families.
Turner read the story "You are Special," a Pinocchio-type story, and educated those in attendance about the importance of keeping kids safe. To raise awareness, Turner encouraged the audience to become active in keeping all children safe from maltreatment, to report any suspicions or knowledge of child abuse, and to give help to families in need.
"It's often the people the kids depend upon the most to care for them who inflict the worst damage," Turner told the audience. "These may be parents who are overwhelmed, or who just don't know that what they are doing is wrong."
There are nearly 3 million reports of child abuse in the U.S. every year, with 37,000 of those reports being in the state of Virginia.
Childhelp USA, a 44-year-old national organization dedicated to the prevention, intervention and treatment of child abuse and neglect, operates the Children's Center of Virginia to help combat child abuse in this region.
Turner, 48, resides in New York City, and has a 15-year-old daughter of her own. She got involved with Childhelp USA when its director contacted her to do a Public Service Announcement due to her distinctive voice.
"I didn't believe child abuse was such a huge problem. For some parents, violence or abuse are the only ways they know how to express feelings of anger or stress in a relationship. Ninety-five percent of those who abuse were abused themselves. But we can retrain them," said Turner.
Childhelp has three U.S. centers which serve as temporary homes or "treatment villages" for victims of abuse: Culpeper, VA, Hollywood, CA, and Scottsdale, AZ (headquarters). In addition, the centers train foster parents. A new center is under development in Michigan.
"Surprisingly, there is very little training or special background required to be a foster parent. As long as you have no criminal record and your home passes inspection, the government says you can qualify to be a foster parent," said Turner. "But this doesn't always work well. The odds are a lot better when a foster parent is properly prepared for the experience."
"Working with Childhelp USA matched my goals and values exactly," said Michael Caplin, 51, of McLean, director of Eastern Operations for Childhelp USA. He has been involved with Childhelp for over 11 years, when he was tapped from directing the Resident Associate program of the Smithsonian.
"The problem of child abuse is far greater than we know," said Caplin. "It is important people appreciate that it's not enough to be concerned about your own children. Child abuse has a ripple effect. The trauma of abuse can trigger many societal problems: eating disorders, drug abuse, bullies, and juvenile delinquents."
"There are several things we can do as parents: 1) be the best parent you can be, 2) if struggling, get help, 3) help other parents who may be struggling, 4) promote body safety to children through schools and on a regular basis, and, 5) if you see abuse, do something about it," according to Caplin.
Childhelp USA has over 150 Virginia-based staff, including 130 in the Culpeper treatment village, a 260-acre therapy center. The average stay in Culpeper is about one year, with some children staying three or four years. Whenever possible, Childhelp USA also works with parents to help them attain the skills to regain custody of their children.
The centers have a large base of volunteers.
"Volunteering with Childhelp USA is an important mission. I've always wanted to help children," said volunteer Rose Anita Roberts, 28, of Lorton, a customer service manager with an association. She recalled a time when she was a "Christmas buddy" for an 8-year-old girl. Even though Rose was nervous since this was her first experience with a child abuse victim, the little girl cheered her up by showing her horses at the Culpeper village.
"Childhelp is doing a great job in the Northern Virginia area. I hope they can do more, with more publicity,"
Locally, there are many volunteer opportunities at Childhelp's Children Center of Virginia in Merrifield, an assessment and treatment center for sexual abuse victims. This center aims to de-traumatize bad experiences faced by victims who often have to repeat their stories to police and social workers several times in disparate places. There are seven police officers, 11 county social workers, and trained staff on hand to provide medical exams — all in one place.
The organization is funded by charitable gifts by individuals, corporations and foundations. On Saturday night, Turner headlined a gala fund-raiser at the Tysons Corner Ritz Carlton for over 600 Northern Virginia business leaders.
Childhelp USA is available to speak about child abuse prevention and treatment, including internet safety and body safety to church, synagogue, or other groups. To help or for more information, call 703-208-1500 or check the web site at www.childhelpusa..org/virginia/. The organization also runs the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD.