GRETNA, La. – On Tuesday night, dozens of people gathered to light 43 candles. Each represented a prayer for the 43 children lost to child abuse or neglect in Louisiana in the fiscal year 2013, which ran from June 2012 through July 2013.
“[We] promise to carry the light of love in our hearts and communities,” said Emily Remington, head of the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Jefferson Parish, or CASA.
Through CASA, volunteers serve as legal advocates for children who have been abused or neglected.
“Children are our future,” said CASA program coordinator Rosana Gonzalez. “We're trying to protect them as much as possible.”
Each year, CASA of Jefferson Parish reads the ages and causes of death of children lost to abuse and neglect during a candlelight vigil.
Their goal is to raise awareness about children like Desmond Brown, 3, who was found dead in his Marrero home last year. His mother's boyfriend is charged with the murder.
There are thousands more cases of child abuse and neglect that don't result in deaths.
Last year, the Department of Child and Family Services investigated more than 27,625 cases of suspected child abuse and neglect in Louisiana, a 6 percent increase from 2012, but in line with the three-year average.
One of the most recent cases of severe alleged abuse is in Houma, where a 19-year-old mother is accused of fracturing her one month old's skull because he was crying too much. The child remains on life support.
“I think there is a need for more information, outreach and connection, personal connection," said Barbara LeBlanc, director of the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital. “It's those relationships we have with parents that really provide them the opportunity to want to learn to change.”
The Children's Hospital Parenting Center is the only program in the state that works to stop child abuse before it starts, said LeBlanc.
“We connect with parents early on in the parenting experience,” said LeBlanc. “It's not just a matter of teaching parents skills. Parents attitudes and beliefs have to embrace the positive parenting approach. That's abuse prevention.”
The Parenting Center has 500 members who use the drop-in center for their children, consult with the professional staff when they have questions on child-rearing, check out books at the center’s library and get a discount on age specific child-rearing classes.
The Parenting Center offers scholarships for those who cannot afford classes and offers some free classes, including Kohl’s “Happiest Baby on the Block” class, which teaches new and expectant parents the skills needed to soothe a newborn. The class is offered at locations on the Westbank, Uptown, and Metairie.
LeBlanc said the center does outreach at schools and churches in communities throughout the metro area, and is open to any parent or expectant parent.
Other resources, like the New Orleans and Jefferson Advocacy Centers, help educate the community to identify signs of abuse or neglect and help to intervene after abuse is reported.
Experts say if parents seek help when they feel overwhelmed and others report suspected abuse to authorities, children's lives could be saved, and perhaps one day no more candles will have to be lit.
To learn more about the Parenting Center, click here.
If you suspect abuse or neglect, contact the DCFS hotline at 855-452-5437855-452-5437.