Holding baby-blue balloons, the people gathered outside the county government building on a warm spring day looked as though they were attending a child’s birthday party.
But this was not a celebration; it was a somber ceremony honoring those who are robbed of happy childhoods. As the balloons bobbed above their heads, members of the group — which included about 20 people, most of whom work for the county — spoke of the horrors of child abuse.
The Greater Prince William Child Protection Partnership hosted the ceremony Wednesday to mark Child Abuse Prevention Month. Employees of the county’s Department of Social Services said the ceremony was designed to raise awareness of the issue — and to remind residents that they can and should report their suspicions if they think a child is being abused or neglected.
“A lot of people think that they can’t call if they don’t know for sure,” said Theresa Wilson, a program manager for the county’s child abuse prevention team. “Our team does prevention. Even if it does not rise to the level of a valid child abuse complaint, we’ll offer voluntary assistance to the family. And so many families want to take us up on it.”
The balloons were released, and they disappeared into the sky within moments, but the attendees also left a more lasting symbol: an eye-catching “pinwheel garden” planted in the dirt outside the Dr. A.J. Ferlazzo Building in Woodbridge. The bright foil toys, which spun wildly in the strong wind, were meant to remind passersby of the joy that all children deserve, the organizers said. A sign at the center of the garden explains the project.
Provided that the weather doesn’t take down the pinwheels sooner, they will stand outside the building all month.
In several county buildings, the Child Protection Partnership has set up displays with information on good parenting. The group, a coalition of government bodies and nonprofit organizations, also runs parenting classes in Prince William County high schools for teenage mothers and fathers.
Phyllis Jennings-Holt, chief of services for the county’s Board of Social Services, said that her division investigated more than 2,300 complaints of child abuse and neglect last year. Most originated with schools and police officers, she said, but neighbors and concerned friends were often valuable informants as well.
As the attendees prepared to release their balloons Wednesday, one woman called out, “Mine is for Relisha,” referring to 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, a D.C. child who has been missing for more than a month and whom police say they do not expect to find alive. Washington’s Child and Family Services Agency had been aware of problems in the girl’s family since she was 2 years old but did not remove her from her mother’s care, records show.
Jennings-Holt said that the ongoing media coverage of the girl’s disappearance might prompt residents to speak up about concerns for other children’s safety.
“Any time a story of that nature comes to the attention of the county, it does heighten the awareness,” Jennings-Holt said. “Those types of situations, when they’re brought to people’s attention, bring people’s antennas up.”