Project Harmony works to end child abuse and neglect. (Photo courtesy of Project Harmony)
April is child abuse awareness month. NSN is highlighting Project Harmony’s collaborative efforts to end child abuse in a two-part series. Part one:
Childhood is a time of innocence, growing and learning that should be nurtured with unconditional love. Sadly, child abuse and neglect are a harsh reality for many children, exposing them to a horror they are often too young to understand. What happens when these victims are discovered? How do they recover? Heal?
Project Harmony helps provide answers. Opened in Omaha in 1996, the child advocacy center’s mission is to end child abuse and neglect. Law enforcement, medical professionals and social services work collaboratively in one location, communicating and coordinating care as a team. Project Harmony provides response, prevention and early intervention services. Last year, the organization served about 6,000 children in the community.
Historically, child abuse and neglect victims were subject to an arduous investigative process. They were interviewed by several agencies, often requiring them to repeat their story to multiple people they did not know. Agencies rarely cooperated as they each followed their individual protocols. Schools, law enforcement, Child Protective Services, and the county attorney conducted their own investigations. This meant victims might were repeatedly traumatized because of the number of times they had to describe the abuse or neglect. Victims sometimes changed their stories during the repeated interviews because they felt they weren’t being heard or believed.
In 1992, Nebraska passed a law requiring communities to create a coordinated, cooperative approach among agencies responsible for protecting children. These agencies included child advocacy centers, law enforcement, the Department of Health and Human Services and prosecutors. In response, Omaha created Project Harmony.
Angela Roeber, Senior Director of Communications at Project Harmony, said that "Child abuse crosses all socio-economic boundaries. It does not discriminate, happens all over and it looks different in every situation."
School personnel report more child abuse than any other entity. Gene Klein, Executive Director of Project Harmony, explained the number of child abuse and neglect reports dropped during the pandemic when schools closed. Maltreatment continued during the pandemic but was not being reported. Klein said, "We were seeing during that period that the severity of abuse was much, much greater. The intensity of maltreatment was higher. Domestic violence was greater. Mental health needs were more critical. Substance abuse was more significant."
Families were isolated when the pandemic hit. Children did not go to school or participate in activities. Parents worked from home and managed at-home schooling. Some parents lost their jobs. Families faced increased stressors, such as income, food and housing.
Abuse comes in many forms. Roeber said that some signs of abuse or neglect might be more evident than others. Children might act out or become more aggressive or angry. They could become more introverted, quieter and more reserved. She said that paying attention to those changes in behaviors can provide insight.
Signs of possible physical abuse include extensive or frequent bruising, adult-sized human bite marks, burns and unexplained injuries. Signs of possible neglect include inadequate clothing, poor hygiene, malnourishment and unattended medical or dental problems. Signs of possible sexual abuse include bruising in the inner thigh or genital area, difficulty walking or sitting, advanced sexual knowledge for their age, sleep problems, frequently running away or self-mutilation.
Project Harmony’s response services include forensic interviews, medical exams, family advocacy and mental health professionals. These services work to help victims and their families deal with trauma. When a child is brought to Project Harmony, a specially trained interviewer conducts a forensic interview to document the child’s description of what happened. These interviews are recorded on a video camera so a team of professionals can observe the interview remotely, eliminating the need for multiple interviews. A medical exam provides information that may support or negate an allegation and helps identify a child’s healthcare needs.
Project Harmony has a Triage Center for children removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. In these cases, caseworkers try to find a relative, family friend or teacher willing to take the child home instead of sending them to an unfamiliar place.
Preventive services include training, Connections Program and Parent University. The Project Harmony Training Institute offers training on child abuse awareness, prevention and various topics relevant to its mission. Training is geared toward community professionals, families and the general public. Annually, they work with over 50 organizations and train over 10,000 people.
The Connections Program is a school-based mental health program to help identify children with behavioral health symptoms. The goal is to identify and provide early intervention. The program also helps connect families with mental health providers in the community. Klein reported that this program received over 300 referrals in January, the highest in the program's history.
Parent University provides families with support and resources to help their children succeed in school. Courses for parents cover life skills, wellness, child development and how to become partners in their child’s education.
Project Harmony continues to evolve with program and partnership expansions. This will be covered in the next article about Project Harmony's work in our community. -30-
You can find more information about the possible signs of child abuse and neglect at www.projectharmony.com.
All citizens are mandatory reporters in Nebraska with a responsibility to report when child abuse is suspected. Call 911 or the Nebraska Health and Human Services Child Abuse Reporting Hotline at (800) 652-1999. The hotline receives about 7,000 calls per month.