Child Abuse Prevention Month: Raising awareness, working for solutions

You wouldn’t want to anger Big Wheel, a formidable-looking biker with a full graying beard.

On April 3rd at Tampa General Hospital, Big Wheel and other members of the Bay Bridges chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse joined pediatric medical workers, social workers and representatives of community organizations for a ceremony bringing attention to National Child Abuse Prevention Month with the planting of a pinwheel garden. 

“I don’t know if you guys have ever seen bikers that look like angels, but these are them,’’ Laura Moody, the event's emcee and news anchor for Good Day Tampa Bay on WTVT Fox 13, tells the crowd about Big Wheel and his buddies. 

Big Wheel says Bikers Against Child Abuse is a nonprofit organization with chapters in 47 states and 19 countries.

“We are a body of bikers that work together to empower children not to be afraid of the world in which they live,’’ Big Wheel tells the crowd at the ceremony.

“So what does that really mean?’’ the biker asks. “Well, these kids have to go through some of the most terrifying stuff going to court. We go with them. We sit with them. We kind of lend that support.’’

“If the abuser makes a threat, we go to (the child’s) house. We hang out at their house,’’ he says.

The crowd, picturing that, laughs.

Pinwheels as symbols

Agencies across the nation that treat child abuse and try to prevent it have planted pinwheels this month. They represent “childhood whimsy and lightheartedness’’ according to Prevent Child Abuse America, which started the annual campaign in 2008.

To mark Child Abuse Prevention Month, the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, its community partner organizations and a contingent from Bikers Against Child Abuse adorned the Children’s Board campus in Ybor City with more than 1,000 pinwheels.On April 1st, the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, its community partner organizations and a contingent from Bikers Against Child Abuse adorned the Children’s Board’s campus in Ybor City with more than 1,000 pinwheels.

Staffers with Champions for Children Tampa Bay planted pinwheels in their service locations in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, Associate Director Nikki Daniels says.

Programs focused on prevention

As the largest nonprofit in the area focused solely on the prevention of child abuse, Champions for Children runs multiple programs that help parents establish a healthy bond with their children, which makes them less likely to abuse their children.

Getting parents to bond with their babies is one reason the organization offers breastfeeding support at more than 10 locations in Hillsborough and three in Pinellas, says Daniels. Parents can also bring their children to the service centers for developmental playgroups that allow them to socialize with other children and help prepare them for preschool and kindergarten.

“We have a lot of different things when we’re teaching parenting,’’ Daniels says. “It actually starts prenatally. We have a lot of classes that we offer prenatal and all those classes include what we call safe baby messages.’’

A key message is never shake a baby, which can cause immediate, severe and permanent brain damage. Another, which Daniels says ties into it, is the need to find a safe caregiver.

“It includes distracted parenting – parents on cell phones, things like that,” she says. “It’s a safe baby curriculum we include in all of our prenatal classes.’’
Another program is specifically for fathers, Daniels says. Champions for Children Associate Director Nikki Daniels.

“Fathers often hesitate to reach out for help around their children,” she says. “(They) sometimes think it’s mom’s job, or the system sometimes makes them feel like it’s mom’s job.’’

The agency tries to help fathers with other needs too, she says.

“If they need help with housing or food or they don’t have a car that’s running or whatever kind of basic needs that they may have, we try as much as we can to help them,” Daniels says.

Part of teaching parents how to support a child’s healthy development is understanding what is appropriate for certain ages and developing parents’ understanding of that. With that knowledge, parents may realize, “Of course, they’re still wetting their diaper; they’re eight months old, they can’t be potty trained yet. It helps reduce that frustration if there’s more understanding,’’ Daniels says.

The organization stresses positive parenting techniques, she adds.

“I’ve heard from so many parents who say, ‘I don’t want to spank my child, but then I did.’ And it’s usually because they didn’t know what to do instead of spanking their child," Daniels says. "They needed another tool in their toolbox more than just saying ‘I’m not going to do something.’ So what are you going to do instead of that? How can you set up your environment to reduce the chances that your child will – in little air quotes – misbehave?’’

Another Champions for Children program, Kids on the Block, is a puppet show in elementary schools that tries to identify children who may be suffering abuse, neglect or bullying

“Last year, we had 12 children who disclosed abuse, and the way they usually do it is at the end of the show they write a letter to the puppet,’’ Daniels says.

Champions for Children reports serving 1,830 children and adults last year through family education and individualized support and 4,092 individuals in the parent-child educational programs.

The nonprofit organization is funded through individual and corporate donations, grants and the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County. In a monthly message to the Children’s Board’s community partners, CEO Rebecca Bacon points to the positive impact community partners like Champions for Children have and says programs that promote and provide knowledge of parenting and child development, nurturing and attachment, parental resilience, social connections, concrete support in times of need and social-emotional competence of children help prevent abuse.

“All families need a helping hand and should be able to access the support and resources they need before they are in crisis,” Bacon writes in the message. “Prevention of child abuse and neglect is possible, and everyone plays a role. It can be as simple as being a good neighbor, mentoring a new parent, helping a family find resources, or volunteering with an organization that supports children and families.” 

Having an impact

Child abuse prevention efforts appear to be paying off, says Terri Balliet, CEO of the Children’s Network of Hillsborough County, the lead agency in the county under contract with the Florida Department of Children and Families to provide foster care for children who have been removed from their family homes because of abuse, neglect and other issues.

Balliet says the Children’s Network, a nonprofit created in 2022, has focused on child abuse prevention from the start. One of the organization’s providers is Champions for Children, she says.

“When we started, we had roughly over 3,200 kids in the child welfare system,” Balliet says. “And since we’ve been in place and we’ve put in the efforts to minimize child abuse and really impact prevention and diversion, we’ve been able to reduce that overall amount to under 2,700 kids."

When someone calls the number to report abuse, 1 (800) 96ABUSE (1-800-962-2873), and an investigation is completed by the Department of Children and Families, Balliet says the organization initially works to keep a child in the home and out of foster care.

“If there’s any way possible that we can impact that family or minimize the risk overall to the kids in the home, we work with those families,’’ Balliet says. “We’ve made significant strides, hence why our numbers have reduced significantly.’’

The Children’s Network has also facilitated more than 650 adoptions since 2022. It has more than 700 foster homes in the county but always needs more, Balliet says.

Treating children who have been abused

When children are abused, Dr. Keith Thatch, director of the pediatric trauma unit at Muma Children’s Hospital on the Tampa General Hospital campus, stands ready to treat them. The children’s hospital has treated more than 150 child abuses in the last two years.

Thatch, a father of four, says the biggest thing that keeps him going to work and gives him hope is the resiliency of the kids he treats.

“And you don’t see resiliency like you do in a child,” he says. “And the ability to watch them recover, the ability to adapt, the ability of them to move forward in life is amazing. We have a great team that helps them, but that helps us keep going. And that helps me every day to come back and do it again.”

On the alert for child abuse, Thatch’s team talks about red flags all the time, he says.

“Are there red flags as to the type of bruising, the type of injury?” he says. “Where are those bruises, where are the burns? Does that make sense with what the story is? We also look for red flags on labs and imaging that just doesn’t add up. Kids are pretty flexible, so for them to have injuries or fractures, it takes a lot of force. And it takes a lot of doing.’’

When child abuse is suspected, Thatch says, “We treat them first and foremost. And then we really rely on our neuro-psychologist, our social work team and then (Division of Children and Families).’’ 

He says the staff has a great relationship with the two doctors who are the child protective team for the state. They come in and help them assess the case.

Mello, president of the Tampa Bay chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse, presents Tampa General Hospital President and CEO John Couris with a tiny "cut," or biker's vest, during a ceremony for National Child Abuse Prevention Month.At the pinwheel ceremony at Tampa General, Mello, president of the local chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse, presented the hospital staff with a small child’s “cut’’ – the blue jean vest that the bikers give kids to welcome them into the biker family. TGH President and CEO John Couris thanked him, saying it will be framed and displayed in Muma Children’s Hospital “to remind all of us the importance and significance of the work we do, protecting those that need to be protected.’’

Talking afterward, Mello, who stands 6-ft.-1 with a bright blue Mohawk haircut, says some of the BACA members had suffered severe child abuse. Others are just drawn to the cause; Mello joined the group after seeing a BACA flier when he lived in Colorado.

“I did some research. Then I went and hung out with the local chapter there,’’ he says, “and then decided, yeah, this is worth spending time on.’’

He says kids’ caregivers find out about BACA from therapists, victim advocates, guardians ad litem, friends and family. The bikers arrive at the child’s house in force, and in a brief ceremony, they give the child his or her own biker vest with the BACA emblem on the back.

“Kids tend to love it,’’ Mello says. “When you think about the biker ethos, it’s all about, we take care of our brothers and sisters. And when we give them that cut, we bring them into our biker brotherhood. So they become part of us. They get that feel.’’

For more information, Bikers Against Child Abuse, Champions for Children, Children’s Board of Hillsborough County and Children’s Network of Hillsborough County.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Philip Morgan.

Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.