BROOKSVILLE — April is Child Abuse Prevention Month and the Children’s Advocacy Center of Hernando County is spreading awareness by planting pinwheels on the grounds of city buildings and schools.

The pinwheels represent a healthy and happy childhood, according to CAC Program Director Janine Kell.

The CAC is a program provided by the nonprofit Mid Florida Community Services Inc., and officials work closely with local law enforcement and the Florida Department of Children and Families to investigate child abuse cases. The CAC has been offering multiple services for child victims of physical and sexual abuse in the county for the past 13 years.

The University of Florida Child Protection Team is co-located at the CAC and they provide forensic interviews, which are recorded interviews of children, and those are used as evidence in our criminal cases to help stop the abuse and for the state attorney to be able to prosecute the cases,” Kell said. “When there’s a disclosure of physical or sexual abuse, medical exams are also provided here. We check them out head to toe to make sure everything’s OK.”

CAC offers pregnancy testing and any medications necessary to treat sexually transmitted infections. If there was a sexual abuse case that happened in the past five days, a sexual assault exams is performed to collect evidence and the kit is turned over to law enforcement to send off to the Federal Department of Law Enforcement.

The CAC website states that those eligible to receive its services include children 17 and younger who are victims of physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, human trafficking, mental injury, drug endangerment, those who witness domestic violence, as well as adults who were sexually abused as children. Non-offending family members such as siblings, parents, or grandparents are also eligible for services.

“Once that takes place and a disclosure is made, we have five full-time therapists who provide free counseling to children who have been victims of sexual abuse and physical abuse,” Kell added. “If there is a criminal case, we provide criminal advocacy so we help them follow the case, we’ll attend depositions with the children, we’ll go to court, and we hold multi-disciplinary team staffings. We are also part of the human trafficking response team in Hernando County.”

In an average year, the CAC has provided services to between 600 and 700 children, according to Kell. She added that what most parents don’t realize, and something that is currently being seen more often these days, is child-on-child sexual abuse. Kell encourages parents to tell their children to talk to them about inappropriate touching or being told to keep a secret from them.

Unfortunately, there are many ways to abuse a child, which teachers are trained to look out for. Children who don’t receive enough food, have a safe place to sleep or have parents who use drugs are just some of the examples of neglect, Kell added.

“Abuse reports were down during the pandemic, but the cases that were coming in were pretty terrible,” Kell said. “Our teachers are our biggest reporters, so when they weren’t in school, the numbers tended to decrease, but the abuse obviously wasn’t stopping. As the kids went back to school, we see our numbers increase.”

Like many nonprofit organizations, funding is a need, but currently the CAC wish list includes cleaning supplies. Kell said she is appreciative of the community’s support when similar calls for help are expressed, such as when snacks were in short supply.

Organizations or individuals interested in learning more about the CAC or receiving a presentation may contact Kell at 352-442-2000.

If you have reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused or neglected, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE. You can speak to a hotline counselor about your concerns and they will be able to determine if a report is warranted. If the situation is an emergency, call 911 immediately.