Just one month ago, two Louisiana sanitation employees were driving their typical waste collection route when they noticed a vehicle, oddly parked in a remote field, which matched the description of a car that they’d heard about in an Amber Alert issued the night before. The vehicle in question had been used in an abduction of a child from the yard of her family’s home. Not only did the men immediately call 911, but they used their garbage truck to block the exit route of the suspicious car. Police arrived on scene within minutes, apprehended a suspect, and rescued the missing 10-year old girl. As it turned out, the car belonged to Michael Sereal, a registered sex offender who had in fact lured the young girl into his vehicle. That child is safe at home, all thanks to two strangers with watchful eyes and hearts for helping children. When one of the men behind this heroic act, Dion Merrick, a father of two young children himself, was asked by CBS News about his role in her rescue, he simply said that it was his duty to protect her. “It was just one of those things you just had to do,” Merrick said. “It was a little girl from the community.”
This almost too-good-to-be-true rescue story made national headlines and served as a stark reminder to all of us of the amazing things that can happen when we keep a collective eye out for the well-being of children in our own communities. And not just in instances of situations as extreme as child abduction. In the midst of a pandemic, and with Cumberland County Public schools still operating virtually, the adolescents of our community are now, more than ever before, isolated in ways that make it easy for signs of abuse, malnutrition, and mental health issues to go unnoticed by the adults such as teachers, counselors, and coaches who would typically carefully observe them and swiftly access help and resources for them when needed.
In an ideal world, not one single child would go without basic needs or be subjected to mental and physical harm. Unfortunately, statistics of cases in our community are moving in the wrong direction. A comparison of total reports of suspected child abuse cases received by the Child Advocacy Center showed an alarming 29% increase from the same six month periods (July 1-December 31) from 2019 to 2020.
As a community, we can and should all work toward a collective goal of eliminating child neglect and abuse cases here and beyond. There are many tangible ways that we adults can advocate for and support our children. Donate to local food banks. Call the social worker assigned to a nearby school and inquire about needs specific to his or her students. Reach out to DSS or the Child Advocacy Center to ask about opportunities for community involvement. Teach children in our own families about body safety, boundaries, and measures for staying safe in public places. Educate ourselves about how to recognize less obvious signs of abuse and neglect in children. In so many cases, they are closer to home than we think.
There is no act of kindness too small to show the precious children of our community that we care. YOU can be the advocate that changes a child's life, or even saves it.