Five folks working with children in Chatham share why community matters

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April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month (CAPM), a time to remember that preventing child abuse is about building strong supports where all families have access to needed services for their children.

The North Carolina theme for CAPM is “Growing better together,” a reminder that an entire community can play a role in making sure our children grow up to be healthy and safe, that they can live and thrive in a community that values their social and emotional well-being. This is even more important as children and their families continue to face challenges as they recover and adapt from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association declared a National Emergency, stating, “The pandemic has struck at the safety and stability of families. More than 140,000 children in the United States lost a primary and/or secondary caregiver, with youth of color disproportionately impacted. We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, and their communities. We must identify strategies to meet these challenges through innovation and action, using state, local and national approaches to improve the access to and quality of care across the continuum of mental health promotion, prevention, and treatment. “

Many organizations in Chatham County have sustained this focus on the well-being of children, and a few of them shared why they do what they do and how a community can make a difference in a child’s life.

Angie Stephenson is an attorney with the Stephenson & Fleming law firm in Chapel Hill. Her firm focuses on family law, meaning she works with adoptive and foster parents and social services departments, including the Chatham County Department of Social Services (DSS). A former foster care social worker herself, Stephenson says she collaborates with the social workers to advocate for protecting children and work toward safely reunifying them with their family and that her role is to do what’s best for each child going through what is often a traumatic time.

She adds that the community is “so important in child welfare.” Stephenson listed several ways people can help becoming foster or adoptive parents, volunteering as a Guardian ad Litem, or developing resources “to eliminate barriers to reunification or other modes of permanence.”

“Even though transportation and housing can still be tough in our mostly rural county, Chatham County has made great strides, and I hope that trajectory continues as the county grows,” she said.

Della B. Richardson is the Center Director of the Telamon Chatham County Head Start Center in Siler City. The facility provides early childhood and family support. Eligibility for the program is based on family income being at or below the poverty level, meaning children served by Telamon centers are among the most in need.

Richardson used to work in corporate America but wanted to do something that “ignites learning in children” and “ensure that every child and family receive the greatest opportunities to thrive.” She said that Telamon not only provides education to very young children but directs families to or provides resources for essential services or needs like food, housing, transportation, or health care. That happens best in a community, she says, when everyone works together.

“In the collaboration, everyone has to have a seat at the table, so all of our voices can be heard,” she says. “We need to determine the needs of the community and the families that it serves. We assess, research, educate, and provide viable options to implement strategies of success. We put safeguards in place to ensure that the needs are met.”

Alicia Doran is a public health social worker and the Healthy Families Coordinator at the Chatham County Public Health Department. Doran went to college to be an elementary school art teacher, but spent summers in Latin America and South America, growing a passion to help families, particularly immigrant families. She referenced the connection between social work and public health, saying that both are “rooted in a belief that to solve the fundamental challenges of population health such as preventing child abuse, society must address the full range of factors that influence a family’s overall health and well-being.”

Doran currently works with families by teaching parenting skills, helping them access resources, and walking with them through the “increasingly complex health care and social service systems.” However, she adds, people like her and institutions like hers must look more upstream to systems and institutions, as well as issues like systemic racism and other longstanding inequities, to make change happen.

“My hope is that in Chatham we can get to a place where we lift each other up and every family has the resources they need when they need them,” Doran says. “So, it is not just the work of social workers, teachers, childcare providers, and church leaders to prevent child abuse but the responsibility of every single adult to protect the most vulnerable among us. As we come out of the fog of Covid, I hope to see people reconnect and begin to rebuild the ‘tiny villages’ that we need to protect our most vulnerable families.”

One of Doran’s co-workers at the Public Health Department, Anthony Izzard, is the Program Coordinator for Focus on Fathers, an initiative which connects young fathers with parenting education, one-on-one fatherhood counseling, and small group discussions. Izzard’s clients are referred to him by Chatham DSS and have children ages 0-5. The program has three goals: assisting fathers with working with their kids at home and helping them make positive choices, building trust among fathers and supporting one another, and being a family in the community.

Izzard and Nellie Benitez, who serves Hispanic/Latinx fathers in the program, focus on, he says, “making life a little easier to navigate” for their clients. He praises Benitez for her “vital role” in making sure Focus on Fathers can “serve all.” He’s been working in the field for more than 20 years after being asked by a school principal to provide mentorship to high schoolers who were fathers. Through his experiences, he said he’s found that “it takes a village” to help children.

“Sometimes it can be the little things to make a major difference,” Izzard says. “The community could be the catalyst for uplift and sharing as well as community agencies. Working together in any capacity could be beneficial for all.”

Finally, there’s Christine Esezobor. She says she was “unconsciously influenced” by her mother, who worked in the social work field for more than 30 years, and now, she is the LINKS Coordinator for the Chatham County Department of Social Services. Designed for youth between 13 and 20 years of age that are currently in or have been in foster care, LINKS supports youth in building community relationships, ensuring access to medical care, planning career and educational goals, and more.

The entire goal of the program, Esezobor says, is preparing these youth for becoming successful adults in the community. The LINKS program covers so many areas, but there are practical things, little things, that the community can do to help prepare youth for their next steps.

“We can support positive connections for our future generation by sharing a skill such as changing a tire to assist someone with reliable transportation, or financial advice to support economic efficiency. We can also share resources and identify community needs to reduce stress that children and families may encounter.”

In the post-COVID world, it’s possible that children and families face more stress and pressure than ever. The U.S. Surgeon General, in his recent youth mental health advisory outlined important steps that family members and caregivers can take to support children and youth. These steps include:

• Be the best role model you can be for young people by taking care of your own mental and physical health.

• Help children and youth develop strong, safe, and stable relationships with you and other supportive adults.

• Encourage children and youth to build healthy social relationships with peers.

• Do your best to provide children and youth with a supportive, stable, and predictable home and neighborhood environment.

• Try to minimize negative influences and behaviors in young people’s lives.

• Ensure children and youth have regular check-ups with a pediatrician, family doctor, or other health care professional.

• Look out for warning signs of distress and seek help when needed.

• Minimize children’s access to means of self-harm, including firearms and prescription medications.

• Be attentive to how children and youth spend time online.

• Be a voice for mental health in your community.

All Chatham County residents can play a role by following these steps and the examples of Stephenson, Richardson, Doran, Izzard, and Esezobor; if not by working directly in those fields, they can do their part in their own spheres to positively influence the life of a child.



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