Several months ago, a rash of child abuse resulted in the death of two young children. It was a tragedy that might have been avoided had someone made a call to report children in trouble. People are often reluctant to call the Department of Children’s Services (DCS), which generally handles cases of abuse and neglect, because they don’t always know what’s going on in the private life of a family. Now, a hotline service makes it easier to anonymously report those concerns.
The hotline is Call4Kids (274-7477).
The service, which has been fielding phone calls since mid-April, was initiated by Mayor A C Wharton’s office. Wharton brought together 12 child welfare agencies and the Crisis Center to talk about ways to improve the reporting of child abuse. The organizations, including the Exchange Club, DCS, Shelby County’s Office of Children and Youth, Link 211, the Shelby County Crime Victim Center, are agencies that can provide assistance to families in crisis. Start-up funds for the initiative were provided by the Assisi Foundation of Memphis, Inc.
“I want this to become a permanent tool to protect children,” said Wharton during the April news conference. “One thing I know, every child deserves to be safe."
The city called on the Crisis Center because the volunteer-powered agency has long run a suicide hotline. Their staff is now been trained to field calls on child welfare. The intent is to have a single local resource people can call that connects them with the proper child agency. Callers receive confidential help and a referral.
“I often look at the Crisis Center as a point of entry for people who might not get access to help for fear of shame or embarrassment,” says Mike LaBonte, the center’s executive director.
Thus far, LaBonte says, Call4Kids volunteers have assisted people with a range of issues affecting children’s well-being, including neglect, inadequate medical care, exposure to drugs and prostitution, truancy, suicide, and emotional and mental health issues.
“This hotline makes it easier for everyday people to help someone they think might be hurt,” says Julie Coffee with the Office of Early Childhood and Youth. “Some don’t know how to report, or don’t think the report will be taken seriously. The hotline will put them through to someone who can help them or link them to someone at DCS.”
While the city’s domestic violence numbers are high, Coffee says the reporting of child abuse is significantly lower. It’s likely child abuse goes underreported because people don’t know what action to take when a child they know is in trouble. The hope is that the new hotline will simplify the reporting process.
“This hotline will put them through to someone who can help them. It’s a way to intervene, to prevent child abuse,” says Coffee.
As a public defender, Wharton recognized that many kids who were abused as children went on to a life of crime or became abusers themselves. If children can get help while they’re young, they’ll have a better chance at growing up to become healthy, productive citizens.
The hotline’s slogan says it all, “If you wait, it’s too late.”