By Ellis County Judge Carol Bush …
Too often we fall victim to the notion that only “important people” leave a mark on society. We question our ability to impact the world around us and sometimes even convince ourselves that being “ordinary” excuses us from even trying. Celebrity may steal the spotlight and wealth may marshal more resources, but it is the passion and commitment of the individual that sustains the success of a cause long after the star-studded stage has cleared.
As county judge, I routinely receive requests to publicly recognize the efforts of various organizations or to issue a proclamation highlighting the importance of a particular cause. From celebrating the cultural richness of Ennis’ Czech heritage to proclaiming March as Meals-on-Wheels Month, drawing public attention to worthy individuals and efforts can be one of the more rewarding aspects of my job. Yet, there are times when it can be heart wrenching. Every year, I am asked to proclaim the month of April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Since 1983, April has been dedicated nationally to the prevention of child abuse. It is such a sad comment on the state of our society that child abuse is so pervasive that an entire month is devoted to educating the public on the topic, and it is sadder still that our heightened awareness cannot eliminate it. There are those of us who cannot fathom the evil that would drive a person to harm a child, but it is a travesty that must be recognized and addressed.
Over the years, my career as an attorney and judge has often brought me into contact with the victims of abuse. Their stories are tragic, and these children will bear the physical and emotional scars for the rest of their lives. Some years back, I represented a child who had been removed from her home by Child Protective Services. The allegation was, and the facts later proved, that her mother’s live-in boyfriend, with her mother’s knowledge and consent, had sexually abused her. She was the same age as my own daughter, which made her plight all the more horrible and real to me.
She was a darling strawberry blond with beautiful blue eyes and rows of freckles dotting her cheeks and nose. Outwardly, she appeared to be a typical 7-year-old child as she happily answered questions about school and her favorite things. Perhaps the most remarkable thing I remember about our initial interview was her nonchalant segue into the explanation of why she wasn’t allowed to be with her mother.
I listened to her describe her own sexual abuse at the hands of a 40-year-old man. The details were so graphic and somehow more horrific because of the childlike words she used to recount them, the sweetness of her voice a sharp contrast to the ugliness of a crime that had been committed many times over. My heart broke as I realized that, quite possibly, she had never known anything but abuse. Eventually, the case resolved with a criminal conviction for the perpetrator and the termination of the mother’s parental rights to the child.
It has been cases like hers and those of other children who have also lost their innocence that have compelled me to be part of organizations like The Gingerbread House, Ellis County Children’s Advocacy Center. The Gingerbread House “provides a child-friendly environment for the child victims and their non-offending family members and coordinates the intervention process reducing further trauma to the child. The center’s goal is to optimize the investigative and prosecution process; provide quality legal, psychological, social and medical services to abused children and to heighten community awareness.”
Child abuse is real. The number of children seen at The Gingerbread House last year underscores that grim reality. Under the leadership of Executive Director John Wyckoff, the nonprofit center has stayed true to its mission to be a resource and a refuge where the healing begins for these children.
Child abuse can be a tough and difficult subject. It is ugly and the natural instinct is to look away because it’s too uncomfortable or sad to face head on. As a founding and current member of The Gingerbread House board of directors, I can attest to the difference that “ordinary” people can make. I have witnessed children’s lives made better by those generous individuals who have volunteered their time, talents and resources. Very rarely can one person alone have as great an impact as a group of like-minded individuals unified by a singularity of purpose.
April comes and goes as quickly as it always does, but the opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life is ongoing. I challenge you to contact The Gingerbread House (elliscountygingerbreadhouse.org), or another organization devoted to the prevention of child abuse, to find out how you can leave your mark on the world.
It doesn’t take riches or fame, just commitment.
Carol Bush serves as County Judge for Ellis County. This column originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Ellis County Living Magazine. Used with permission.