Cumberland University and the Child Advocacy Center for the 15th Judicial District presented the third-annual Child Abuse Awareness Panel on Oct. 30 to raise awareness of the abuse and neglect of children and the work to provide a space for healing and a route for prosecution of crimes.
In attendance were Wilson County sheriff’s Detective Jennifer Mekelburg, Assistant District Attorney Tom Swink, Child Advocacy Center forensic interviewer Cece Ralston, Department of Children’s Services lead investigator Patrick Cockburn, Connie Mitchell, a representative with Fellowship of Christian Athletes who became a referent on a child abuse case, and David Stokes, who was personally impacted after his daughter was abused by a coach at her school.
About 50 people attended the panel discussion, which was moderated by Eric Cummings, dean of the School of Humanities, Education and the Arts at Cumberland, with introductory remarks by C. William McKee, provost and vice president of academic affairs.
The panelists described the range of challenges to deal with children who often don’t feel comfortable talking about the abuse they’ve endured and the challenges to secure convictions of the perpetrators, a sign the work to keep children safe is often muddled in legal pitfalls. The challenges require teamwork and cooperation across the board, a task met by the panelists on a daily basis.
Regardless of those challenges, the panelists reminded the audience it’s the responsibility of everyone to look out for members of their families and communities, and there is a legal obligation for anyone in Tennessee to report cases of abuse, reports that can be done anonymously.
The discussion ranged from the personal stories of Stokes as he dealt with the abuse of his daughter by someone that was supposed to be a mentor and an authority figure to the stories of Mitchell, who stepped up and reported suspected abuse, as well as the legal challenges and procedures that lead to prosecution.
Stokes said in retrospect, the signs of manipulation and abuse were there, but they were easily missed as the abuser had become close with the family to take advantage of the situation. Stokes said parents have to stay vigilant and not be afraid to question situations that could be inappropriate.
“We have to stop walking past what’s uncomfortable. We have to be transparent. These types of people aren’t going to be electrical linemen. They’re going to be teachers, coaches, ministers. They’re going to get themselves in a position to where they can take advantage of somebody,” Stokes said.
Stokes also said there is hope, and part of that hope is honesty about the situation and understanding of how to control how positive or negative you are about the rest of your life.
“There’s two routes to go. There’s positive or a really dark road that a really dark road that’s not well for anybody, so you have to find the positive,” Stokes said. “The only way you stay positive is you don’t hide from it. You don’t act like it didn’t happen, because then you get reclusive, and you’ll do something bad. If you’re open and talking about it, you’re almost holding yourself accountable. If I’m open with how I feel and how I think, I’m less likely to follow through with certain thoughts, because you have bad ones. You can’t help it.”
Mitchell, who has reported several cases of child abuse in her role of working with students and coaches, said it’s up to panels and people like these who can combat abuse through education of the signs of abuse and how to help those in need.
“I never thought that would be a part of my job with FCA,” Mitchell said. “I looked at the happy part, like I get to share the gospel. I get to be with the kids. I get to encourage the kids. Billy Graham said that one coach influences more people in one season than the average person does in a lifetime, and you think about the one season that they went through and the impact that that coach had in the negative. So for me it feels like I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be hearing what I’m hearing if I didn’t have a voice to report it.”
The discussion from the team of professionals gave a perspective on the power and advantage of working together to help keep children safe and to help put abusers behind bars for as long as the law allows. The teamwork is critical to success of every member of the panel as they work to make the communities of Middle Tennessee a safer place.
“I’m just humbled, seriously humbled to be a part of this team. It is a great team with DCS and the Child Advocacy Center, and I’m so glad to see the Stokes out here, people from law enforcement with Detective Mekelburg. It’s just a privilege and an honor for me to be a part of it,” Swink said.
“I’m so proud to be a part of this team that works so well together to protect children and help their healing,” Ralston said. “We’re always glad to speak to the public and to educate people about abuse and to let people know about the services that we offer, which includes education and awareness of sex abuse. We offer free training, so it’s a great opportunity to speak to a range of folks in the community, and we’re happy to do it.”