Solution makers: Champions for Children aims to stop child abuse before it happensLessons of Child Abuse Prevention Month

At 35 weeks into her pregnancy (about 5 weeks before her due date), Melissa gave birth to her baby boy. 
“I was alone and didn’t have anybody,” she says. (Melissa isn’t her real name; she has requested to remain anonymous.)
Due to the early delivery, Melissa’s son had to stay in the hospital NICU. One month later, Melissa and her son were cleared to go home and start their lives together. Without a partner or any support at home, Melissa found herself struggling to keep up with her new role as a mother and with breastfeeding. 
Her pediatrician referred her to Champions for Children, which offers a service called the Baby Cafe -- a free, walk-in breastfeeding clinic -- for lactation support. 
Champions’ lactation consultant helped Melissa troubleshoot breastfeeding challenges that were causing her stress, and gave her reassurance that her baby was getting enough to eat. 
Over the course of several visits, Melissa's lactation consultant noticed that Melissa was overwhelmed with the demands of caring for a preterm baby and could be at-risk for postpartum depression. So, she enrolled Melissa in another Champions service that sent a postpartum doula to her home for extra support. The doula provided hands-on help with light housework, caring for the baby, and reinforcing the lessons learned at the Baby Cafe. 
“The foundation and support at Baby Cafe were great,” Melissa says. “I’m more confident and a stronger mother with the support system from Champions.”
With Champions' guidance and help, Melissa was able to manage her stress, learn helpful techniques, and become a more confident parent for her new baby. 
“When I came to Baby Cafe, my lactation consultant encouraged me and lifted me up,” Melissa says. “The knowledge from Baby Cafe helps me be able to take care of him better, and be a better mother and parent.”

On a mission to prevent child abuse

It’s impossible to know the alternate scenario -- what would have happened if Melissa hadn’t gotten help, but we do know that support from others goes a long way to prevent overwhelmed parents from neglecting or lashing out at their children.

National Child Abuse Prevention Month (April) raises awareness of a widespread need that hasn’t receded amid the pandemic and recent natural disasters: the need to provide assistance to parents who are in over their heads.

More than ever, organizations and citizens are galvanizing attention to the importance of parents and communities working together to strengthen families to prevent child abuse and neglect. 

In Hillsborough County, Champions for Children distinguishes itself as the only nonprofit dedicated exclusively to the prevention of abuse and neglect. The Tampa-based nonprofit provides services and support systems that can help protect children and produce thriving families.

“We're here to listen and to help people and guide them to the destination they want to be as a parent,” says Amy Haile, Executive Director of Champions for Children. 

“Much of that assistance involves helping them develop their own sense of confidence and competence as a parent. That's helping them build their sense of resilience, and when children can see their parents go through stress and survive and get stronger on the other side of it, that helps them build their own sense of resilience.”

Prevention is indeed a necessary evolution from only dealing with abusive parents after the fact. 

“Typically, people get information about child abuse from the media, and my impression from what I read and see is that articles usually highlight the most horrible stories,” says Svetlana Yampolskaya, Ph.D., Research Associate Professor. Child and Family Studies in the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences at the University of South Florida.
“Consequently, people’s natural reaction is to punish those who abuse their children more,’’ she says. “There are some cases of horrible child abuse, but the majority of children do not get reported as being abused a second time.”

According to the Department of Children & Families, Hillsborough County has the most reported and confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect in Florida. On average, four children are removed from their family homes due to child abuse and neglect every day in Hillsborough. Half of those children are under 5.

Isolation of pandemic takes its toll

Nonprofits like Champions for Children have helped overworked, overwhelmed moms, dads, and other caregivers learn how to manage their emotions and assure them that they’re not deeply flawed for not having it all together all the time. Haile says that the romanticization of parenthood on TV and in movies has led to new parents feeling guilty and diminished as they compare themselves to an ideal that doesn’t exactly exist in real life. 

“We normalize stressful experiences for them because if you were to believe Hollywood or social media, we would believe that there are superhero parents out there who are doing it all and looking great doing it, and that's just not the real world.”

Champions also knows that more than half of the children in foster care are under 5, Haile adds. “Sometimes child abuse and neglect happen because parents don't know what to expect. They may be asking an 18-month-old to sit still for a 90-minute session, which is just setting everybody up for failure and frustration.”

Champions for Children educates parents and caregivers of all types -- grandparents, foster parents included -- in practical, therapeutic, and well-functioning approaches to raising children. From doulas who visit newborn moms in homes to help with breastfeeding to everyday life skills. 

“We've been doing a lot more work with parents through the pandemic,” Haile says. “We really want to increase our ability to help families navigate challenges so they can access basic needs such as healthcare, mental health care, having enough food, whatever the need might be for them.”

Champions is also helping parents deal with the social isolation caused by the pandemic. Haile says that social connections have been recognized as preventative against child abuse. When you're building your support system, you have someone to rely on when you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed.”

In response to the urgency of social needs, several of the activities are group-based, albeit virtually these days. “We do have in-person activities starting to come back online,” Haile says. “We're also really working with families to build connections amongst themselves so that they don’t need us for everything. Some of the best things that I get to hear are parents of teenagers in high school, who met each other through one of our educational playgroups, and they have stayed connected for 15, 16 years because those first interactions became their support network. We're helping parents develop that support network.”

Haile emphasizes that early intervention especially makes a key difference for children and families in the prevention of child abuse and neglect. 

“If you don't stop the stream then, you're never going to get ahead of it,” she adds. To circumvent worrisome behavioral patterns, Champions attempts to reach moms and dads before the neighbors and loved ones who call DFC or law enforcement, which can lead to fractured homes, children in foster care, and worsening abuse from feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness.

What works? Do more of that

According to Dr. Rampolskaya, a couple of approaches have shown to be effective but need to be expanded. “One approach is the prevention-based home visit,” she says. 

Studies indicate that, for example, maternal, infant and early childhood home visiting (MIECHV) and home instruction for parents of preschool youngsters (HIPPY) programs work pretty well.” By expanded, Rampolskata suggests that the programs be expanded to parents with older children since the most studied and implemented interventions focus on parents with children of preschool age.”
“Another approach is called ‘Parent Café,’ Rampolskaya adds. “This idea is similar to the idea of a support group where parents get together. Often a person who is knowledgeable or has experience in the topic is included and facilitates the discussion. [That person can] discuss their issues, share concerns, provide psychological support.”

Champions for Children CEO Haile insists that Champions for Children doesn’t turn away anyone or any family for assistance. Parents who are struggling financially, through trauma and circumstances can reach out to Champions through the organization’s web portal or by phone. Volunteers and employees are trained to provide referrals and match parents up with the program that suits them most. Haile assures that no one is left out, on hold, or on a long waiting list. 

“If they're looking for childcare, then we would connect them to the Early Learning Coalition,” Haile says. “They would be treated conscientiously by our staff, some of whom are bilingual in English and Spanish.

“All families can benefit from support,” Haile emphasizes. “We know that there are more vulnerable families. So, we have Layla's House, which is in Sulphur Springs, and we have our "Great We Grow" program, which is in Town ‘N Country. We try to be neighborhood-based and become part of the trust that’s the fabric of a neighborhood.” 

For more information, including how to volunteer your services or make a donation, visit Champions for Children. Donors who give $300 or more can see their gifts matched through April 30. This matching opportunity is made possible by the generosity of Moira J. Burke, Malcolm C. Harris, and Linda and Bob Blanchard.

On April 29th, Champions for Children will cap off the month with a virtual celebration highlighting stories of transformational change and honoring Liz Kennedy, a longtime Champion, with the 6th Annual Cornelia Corbett Child Advocate Award. More info here.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Julie Garisto.

A graduate of Largo High, USF, and the University of Tampa's Creative Writing MFA program, Julie Garisto grew up in Clearwater and now has a home in the Ocala National Forest. Between writing assignments, she's teaching English courses at Saint Leo University and other colleges. Julie has written arts features in Creative Pinellas' online magazine ArtsCoast Journal, Creative Loafing, Florida travel pieces  (Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Jacksonville), the Cade Museum, and features and reviews in the Tampa Bay Times. Her previous journalistic roles include arts and entertainment editor for Creative Loafing, staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, and copy editor for the Weekly Planet. Lately, she's been obsessed with exploring Florida's State Parks, small towns, and natural springs.