On Sept. 11, 2006, Darla Gooden’s world changed forever when her son revealed that he had been sexually abused by a youth leader from their church. A few days later, her younger son told her that he had been sexually abused by the same man, who is now in prison.
“What happened to my family is not as rare as you choose to think,” Gooden said in a speech kicking off National Child Abuse Prevention Awareness Month on the Capitol lawn Thursday.
Gooden, a Phoenix resident who wrote a book about her experience titled “The Restorer of the Breach,” said raising awareness about child abuse prevention is the most effective tool communities have to protect children against violence and neglect.
“Our children need our immediate attention and help to rid their lives of the terrorism that comes to steal their innocence,” she said.
The event was hosted by the Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Coalition, made up of more than 50 agencies and organizations, which was created after the beating death of 3-year-old Schala Vera in Chandler two years ago. Her mother’s boyfriend is awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge.
A quilt displayed next to the speakers carried names of the 64 Arizona children who died from child abuse in 2009, the last year for which statewide statistics are available. Last year, 51 empty plastic chairs lined the lawn at the same event, symbolizing each child who died in 2008.
Chandler Police Chief Sherry Kiyler said she was troubled by the increase in deaths.
“It’s been one year since we stood here and said we were going to do something about it,” she said.
Kiyler said that the coalition received some funding from First Things First, the state’s early childhood development program, that will be used to promote awareness about child abuse and educate the community about prevention.
Education can be as simple as teaching parents that babies are supposed to cry, said Veronica Bossack, assistant director for the Arizona Department of Economic Security’s Division of Children, Youth and Families.
“If we can give parents the tools they need to handle challenging situations we will have taken an important step,” Bossack said.
Karen Woodhouse, chief program officer for First Things First, said child abuse severely harms a child’s future, increasing his or her risk of certain diseases, violent behavior, unemployment and suicide.
“What this means is that abuse follows children beyond childhood and that the very youngest face the greatest risk,” she said.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said officials need to work together to ensure that children are removed from abusive family situations.
“If that family environment becomes nothing more than a cloak for criminal conduct or that home environment is nothing more than an ongoing crime scene,” Montgomery said, “then we have the moral obligation to do something about it.”
A moral obligation is what compels Gooden to help raise awareness about child abuse and the devastation it caused in her family. She said educating parents and raising awareness in the community has helped her family begin to heal.
“To be good parents is to be informed parents,” Gooden said.