The Front Porch Project is offering two training sessions on child abuse prevention in partnership with Midcoast Maine Community Action and Bath’s Tony Dancer.

MMCA and Dancer say the timing is right for the community outreach initiative because of additional family stress caused by the pandemic, including job losses, uncertainty about the future and school buildings closing.

“Kids have been (impacted substantially), and it’s likely related to family stressors worsened from the pandemic,” said Caitlin Gilmet, MMCA communications director.

According to data provided by the Maine Children’s Trust, the number of child abuse cases, 4,500, remained steady in 2020, but the trust suspects a lack of reporting during the pandemic may hide the real number.

We know that child abuse is preventable, and the FPP training is one more line of defense of childhood abuse and neglect,” Gilmet said. 

The Front Porch Project is a community response initiative, funded in part by donations to the Maine Children’s Trust on behalf of Marissa Kennedy, a 10-year-old Stockton Springs girl who was murdered by her mother in 2017.

The sessions, designed so that participants can take the training back to their own community groups, emphasize helping one another prevent situations where abuse can occur, Gilmet said.

Training sessions will cover a number of scenarios, such as what a bystander can do to help when seeing a parent snap at their child at a grocery store.

“You can offer support and small connection. Offering a hello, or ‘I’ve been there,’ taking a moment to connect. We hear stories on social media about a parent who is sleep-deprived and needs those essentials. Offering help, small things really can make a difference,” said Heidi Aakjer, Maine Children’s Trust’s assistant director and abuse prevention coordinator

The idea, Aakjer said, is that if you see a family struggling and have a network of resources to offer, you could alleviate some of the stressors that lead to child abuse.

The sessions’ focus is on prevention; active child abuse cases, in which witnesses should call the police and the Office of Child and Family Services, will not be addressed.

Aakjer said the Children’s Trust dealt with more child abuse this year than in previous years, likely due to the “toxic stressors” of the pandemic. While the number of reports held steady over 2019, reporting likely decreased when schools were closed and other services were shut down, she said.

With its outreach, the trust sees more outreach and substantiated cases than those handled by Child Protective Services with the Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS reported about 3,000 cases in 2019, 258 of them from Cumberland County, 48 in Sagadahoc and 345 in Kennebec County in their most recently available data.

“We are still working to understand the repercussions of the effects on families,” she said. “We do know when there are times of stress, losing jobs, struggling to put food on the table, that is a year of toxic stress,” Aakjer said.

Topsham Police Lt. William Collins told the Coastal Journal that his department since 2019 has investigated 14 cases of child abuse referred to them from Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office. Bath Police have investigated 41 cases since 2019, according to Detective Richard Ross. The Bath data does not show a pandemic increase, Ross said, with seven cases in 2020 and seven so far this year, compared to roughly 16-18 cases at this time in prior years.

Ross did not comment on why the trend reflects this, or if reporting potentially decreased over the pandemic, and the Sagadahoc County Sherriff’s Office did not return calls from the American Journal by the deadline.

The Front Porch Project is offering two online two-session training courses open to the public, but Dancer, a project partner and owner of Tony Dance Fiesta dancing school, wants to bring in as many Bath residents as possible.

“It means a lot because it will help not just parents but also uncles, grandparents, big brothers and big sisters,” Dancer said. “This could help everyone because we need to understand what is going on with these kids’ minds.”

Dancer has offered dance classes for Midcoast youth at community centers and at events in part he said, to help struggling kids realize there is happiness out there.

While not the victim of child abuse himself, growing up gay in Catholic Peru was tough, he said, often thought of suicide. With the death of a student to suicide in 2015, Dancer works to raise awareness about not only childhood pressure and depression but also abuse and any other issues that force children to devalue themselves.

“I hated myself, I can’t imagine how much worse that is for a child who is abused, that is why I am promoting this so bad,” Dancer said. “It would be great if we got parents out, but also organizations like Big Brothers and Big Sisters.”

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