Advocates encourage community to go from 'Darkness to Light'

Prevention is key in child sexual abuse, and Catawba County accepts a challenge to train residents to stop the realm of abuse.

The Children's Advocacy Center and Children's Protection Council kicked off a prevent-a-thon Wednesday morning with a breakfast and seminar to alert area officials, law enforcement, school leaders and business owners of the importance of training the community to stop sexual abuse. Catawba County is the first community in North Carolina to start the Darkness to Light training.

"It's a tough topic with developing consequences," said Adrienne Opdyke, Children's Advocacy Center victims advocate.

Opdyke said the goal is to train 5 percent of Catawba County's residents. By reaching that goal, Opdyke said that's the "tipping point" to build momentum and create a cultural shift in the community.

The Darkness to Light training lasts about 3 hours, which includes 2.5 hours of training based on seven steps to prevention with a test at the start and end. More than 700 people were trained in Catawba County during the past three years. Those previously trained in Darkness to Light will be facilitators and volunteers assisting with training sessions throughout the year. About 1,200 people are expected to train in the program this year.

With 728 people trained in the past few years, 22 incidents were prevented, which saved Catawba County money. According to Wednesday's presentation, $14.1 million is spent in Catawba County for long-term costs associated with child sexual abuse. Opdyke said, with the exception of murder, child sexual abuse cases are the second highest in expense for the county.

In five years, Catawba County can prevent 59,672 incidents of child sexual abuse with more trainers passing the Darkness to Light program, Opdyke said.

"This training is so important to me," Opdyke said. "We are reaching children and families before they come to our door (at Children's Advocacy Center). (The training) changed me as a parent, and I challenge you."

CAC Executive Director Deborah Johnson said most recently in Charleston, S.C., 20,000 residents were trained in the program. Johnson said the community reached its tipping point, which in turn, made it difficult for a defense attorney to select jurors, who did not have the Darkness to Light training, for a child abuse case.

"We are also educating our jury pool," Johnson said.

Johnson said the training program will protect Catawba County's children because adults will be more aware of possible abusive relationships and situations.

"I've never seen a better prevention program in my life," Johnson said.

"It drastically reduces a child being put into an abusive situation and prevents offenders from abusing children."

Phil DiCasolo, former Hickory Foundation YMCA director, said he offered the 2008 staff at the YMCA the Darkness to Light training because of employees' involvement with children on a daily basis.

"The staff has become more observant and have the opportunity to be engaged with children," DiCasolo said. "That would not have happened unless we had that training. We need to make sure our children are safe. (The children) need you to help them be safe."

CAC and CPC ask the community to seek training. In addition, the organizations need venues for training sessions; help promoting and advertising the program; and financial contributions.

Currently, Catawba County Department of Social Services, First Presbyterian Church in Hickory and St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Conover have organized training sessions. The cost is $10 per person, which includes a workbook. For more information on scheduled training sessions, to make a donation or to provide a venue for training, visit www.catawbacountycac.org or call (828) 465-9296.

"I am excited we are going to pull this off in Catawba County," Johnson said. "It can make a difference."

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