Members of Bikers Against Child Abuse, an organization that works to empower and protect children who have experienced child abuse or neglect.
Reminder Publishing photo by Sarah Heinonen

BELCHERTOWN — A red flag, emblazoned with blue figures of children holding hands, flapped in the bitter wind outside the Belchertown Town Hall on April 5. In the center of the flag, one child’s figure was reduced to a white outline, nearly invisible against the red background.

The flag was raised in observance of Child Abuse Preventions Month. In addition to Belchertown, Easthampton, Northampton, Amherst, South Hadley, Athol, Greenfield and Conway organized flag raising ceremonies to reaffirm their community’s dedication to supporting children who have been abused and preventing future abuse. Hadley read a proclamation and candle lightings were scheduled in Northampton and Belchertown between April 1 and April 11. The ceremonies were coordinated by the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Hampshire and Franklin counties, and the North Quabbin and the Northwestern District Attorney’s Offices.

State Rep. Aaron Saunders (D-Belchertown) attended the flag raising in Belchertown, as did the town’s police and fire chiefs and members of those departments. Belchertown Animal Control Officer Anna Fenton joined the observance with Oliver, the Belchertown Police Department’s comfort and therapy dog. One of Oliver’s primary jobs is to comfort victims of crimes, including abuse.

Three members of Bikers Against Child Abuse, an organization that works to empower and protect children who have experienced child abuse or neglect, attended the ceremony. Members engage with and support children through a physical presence in the home, visiting children at school and attending to therapy needs.

During the ceremony, Children’s Advocacy Center of Hampshire County Executive Director Kara McElhone spoke of B.A.C.A. members appearing in court to support children, and said, “It changes kids’ lives to have you there.”

One member of the organization, who identified himself as “Runner,” worked with School Resource Officer Jason Kroll to raise the flag.

McElhone also spoke about “Handle with Care,” a joint program between the Belchertown Police Department and Children’s Advocacy Center of Hampshire County and the Belchertown School Department, in which schools are notified if a student has experienced a traumatic event. “McElhone said Belchertown has “set the standard for the rest of the country.”

McElhone also announced that a satellite office of the Northampton-based advocacy organization will be opening in Belchertown. She explained that children who are provided therapy through the organization must drive up to 45 minutes after school to receive services. The new location will help alleviate that added stress, she said.

Referring to the flag raising ceremony, McElhone said it is more than symbolic. “It reminds [children] they are not alone. They know the community is there for them.”

Saunders added, “It literally shows the community’s priority.” He said the Children’s Advocacy Center “not only helps those who’ve been victimized but hopefully prevents future victims.” Through the organization, he said that he learned there is a generational aspect, in that those who have been victimized often go on to victimize others. Part of the work the advocacy center does is around ending that cycle.

Saunders said, “Essential work is being done here.”

The Massachusetts Children’s Alliance lists the following signs of child abuse or neglect:

  • Unexplained injuries — Visible signs of physical abuse may include unexplained burns or bruises in the shapes of objects. You may also hear unconvincing explanations of a child’s injuries.
  • Changes in behavior — Abuse can lead to many changes in a child’s behavior. Abused children often appear scared, anxious, depressed, withdrawn or more aggressive.
  • Returning to earlier behaviors — Abused children may display behaviors shown at earlier ages, such as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, fear of the dark or strangers. For some children, even loss of acquired language or memory problems may occur.
  • Fear of going home — Abused children may express apprehension or anxiety about leaving school or about going places with the person who is abusing them.
  • Changes in eating — The stress, fear and anxiety caused by abuse can lead to changes in a child’s eating behaviors, which may result in weight gain or weight loss.
  • Changes in sleeping — Abused children may have frequent nightmares or have difficulty falling asleep, and as a result may appear tired or fatigued.
  • Changes in school performance & attendance — Abused children may have difficulty concentrating in school or have excessive absences, sometimes due to adults trying to hide the children’s injuries from authorities.
  • Lack of personal care or hygiene — Abused and neglected children may appear uncared for. They may present as consistently dirty and have severe body odor, or they may lack sufficient clothing for the weather.
  • Risk-taking behaviors — Young people who are being abused may engage in high-risk activities such as using drugs or alcohol or carrying a weapon.
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviors — Children who have been sexually abused may exhibit overly sexualized behavior or use explicit sexual language.

For more information about preventing child abuse, visit the Children’s Advocacy Center of Hampshire County at cachampshire.org, or the Baystate Health Family Advocacy Center at tinyurl.com/4e427uw9.

If a child is in immediate danger, call 911.

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