SEBRING - On the same day Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a series of bills to toughen laws dealing with sexual predators and offenders, particularly those targeting children, Highlands County kicked-off its annual child abuse prevention month Tuesday.
As rows of blue-and-silver, foot-tall pinwheels planted in the lawn spun with the wind, about 200 people gathered on the Highlands County Courthouse grounds to take part in Prevent Child Abuse America's "Pinwheels for Prevention." For the past 20 years, the national campaign has worked to ensure the healthy and safe development of children. It promotes that effort through a network of chapters in 50 states and 581 Healthy Families America home visitation sites in 41 states, all the territories, Puerto Rico, Canada and down to counties like Highlands.
Beginning at 8 a.m. in front of the courthouse steps, 430 S. Commerce Ave., about 200 people, including those from child advocacy groups, law enforcement, local and state government and parents, gathered to prepare for April's focus on healthy child development, proactive parenting and community involvement.
"We live in a very wonderful county with people who care. If we continue to make efforts to prevent child abuse...we're off on the right foot," said Micah Scanga, executive director of the Mason G. Smoak Foundation - a faith-based organization that will support education and promote environmental stewardship - and member of the Children's Services Council.
Emceed by Judge Angela Cowden of Florida's Tenth Judicial Circuit Court, the 45-minute event was also held to acknowledge April as national Child Abuse Prevention Month and among sponsors was Heartland for Children, Prevent Child Abuse Florida and Champion for Children Advocacy Center, Highlands County.
As he passed out pinwheels, Jeff Roth, Champion for Children director and event chairman, said Highlands County has held the kick-off ceremony for at least 10 years, the first Tuesday of April. He said the key was to get positive messages out about child advocacy and avoid the "gloom and doom" of news regarding child abuse.
"We want to hear the positive things you can do to encourage, guide, mentor and educate our young people," he said just prior to the kick-off. "It's all of our responsibilities to look out for these children when they're reaching out for help."
Prevent Child Abuse America classifies child abuse into three categories: emotional, sexual and neglect. In 2011, an estimated 681,000 children in the United States were victims of abuse or neglect, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children's Bureau. In addition, about one in seven girls and one in 25 boys will be sexually abused before they reach the age of 18. In Florida, in 2010 there were an estimated 51,920 children who were victims of child abuse or neglect and perpetrators consisted of family members, friends and acquaintances.
It's numbers like those that keeps Pinwheels for Prevention as an annual event and on the minds of its organizers and supporters.
In addition to Scanga, speakers included Barbara Moss, executive director of One Hope United, a safe home for children advocacy organization in Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri and Florida, and Assistant Florida State Attorney Steve Houchin. He compared child abuse prevention to a story about an oak tree and an acorn and how a little acorn becomes a beautiful tree.
"Remember, within you is a great oak and be the 'tree' that you were meant to be," he said.
Moss, who spent 30 years with the Florida Department of Children and Families, said there are four "promises" people should keep dealing with child advocacy: leadership, collaboration, innovation and hope. She said it takes all four to make life safer and more secure for children.
"This is a community of people that want to get things done and do it right. They have a great heart for our children," she said.
Besides speakers, Pinwheels for Prevention featured a short play. "A Mommy's Prayer," during which Shealyn Macool, 13, an eighth-grader at Sebring Middle School portrayed the way a mother interprets the words of her daughter, played by Megan Glisson, 9, who is home-schooled.
The event concluded with a singing performance by Cammie Lester, who recently won at Walt Disney World's American Idol Experience and sang Dave Guetta's "Titanium."
Scott, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford signed four bills to crack down on people who commit sexually violent crimes. The issue drew attention because of high-profile incidents such as the 2013 kidnapping, rape and murder of an 8-year-old Jacksonville girl.