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90'S FAMILY | REAL LIFE

Chipping Away at Child Abuse

March 09, 1997|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The face, seen from a child's point of view, is contorted in rage and nearly obscured by a fist of the same size.

Edged in red, the words "Stop Crying Now" grow larger as they scrawl from the mouth.

Below are smaller words: "Kids Don't Deserve Abuse." And a number: (888) ALL-4-KIDS.

Since January, more than 2,000 of these and similar outdoor advertisements have appeared throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties as part of a shock campaign by the Children's Bureau of Southern California to wake up public concern about child abuse. Others show the adults saying, "You Stupid Little. . . ." and "If You Ever Tell. . . ."

We've heard this message before. We get it. We feel awful. But we wonder, what are we supposed to do?

According to the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, 75% of the public already wants to do something about child abuse. But faced with a huge and highly complex problem, we don't know how to help.

The reporting system, though necessary, has been increasingly viewed as punitive and costly, often separating families and dooming kids to a childhood of foster care. Family preservation is equally controversial. Now attention is turning to community education and support, an approach designed to help parents before they hurt their children with fists, words or the most common problem: disinterest.

Callers to the campaign number learn that the message behind the billboards is an appeal to support prevention efforts in the form of Neighborhood Family Resource Centers. Located in churches, schools and malls, these centers provide reading clubs, computer and sewing classes, and support groups in a setting where parents can go without stigma.

Alex Morales, executive director of Children's Bureau of Southern California, said, "What we really need are parents who will get involved and own the responsibility for their communities and pair up with others who are sharing a common goal." At the Southland's five centers--in Los Angeles, Inglewood, Fullerton, Huntington Beach and Mission Viejo--he said parents play an important leadership role.

Solutions are becoming increasingly urgent--particularly in California, where there are 76 reports of child abuse and neglect per 1,000 of the population, the highest in the nation. The national average is 46 reports per 1,000. Morales worries that if welfare reforms add to poor parents' problems, more of California's children will be threatened.

Whether throwing cold water into the public's face with media messages will help remains to be seen. Similar media campaigns in the 1980s by the National Coalition for the Prevention of Child Abuse showed such ads were effective in changing attitudes but that extreme messages turned some people off.

Morales said hundreds of callers have responded to the new Children's Bureau campaign--some to get help for themselves, others to donate money or volunteer. Three children called to get help for themselves.

More information may be obtained online at http://www.all4kids.org.

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.

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