It's too late for Zahra Baker.
It isn't too late, however, to prevent other children from becoming victims of child abuse in Catawba County. That's why county elected leaders and law enforcement officials gathered Friday at the Children's Advocacy Center in Conover to announce their commitments to preventing child abuse and protecting children in the area.
"If there's any community who knows more about child abuse than this community, I don't know where it would be," said Hickory Mayor Rudy Wright. "So many people have come up to me and said, 'I wish I could have held Zahra and given her the love she deserved.'"
Mary Jo Wiley, Children's Advocacy Center board chairwoman, presented a proclamation Friday announcing April as Child Abuse Prevention Month in Catawba County, hoping to stop child abuse and its negative effects.
"Whereas child abuse and neglect not only cause immediate harm to children, but are also proven to increase the likelihood of criminal behavior; substance abuse; health problems, such as heart disease and obesity; and risky behavior, such as smoking," Wiley read from the proclamation before calling upon all citizens and community organizations to support the cause.
The proclamation is endorsed by elected officials from Catawba County, Hickory, Conover, Newton, Brookford, Catawba, Claremont, Longview and Maiden.
Zahra's case was one of thousands of cases of reported abuse the county handled recently. Catawba County received 2,570 child neglect/abuse reports involving 5,187 children from 2009-10, and 70 percent of those reports met the criteria for investigative assessment. The Department of Social services found that 776 children, or about 15 percent of the children involved in reported mistreatment, were in need of ongoing protection.
The remaining children didn't receive ongoing protection because there was "there was no legal basis to continue child protective services," according to data released from Catawba County Child Protective Services. In the situations where ongoing protection wasn't required, the conditions were sufficiently corrected, other issues existed besides those involving Child Protective Services or there was
insufficient evidence to establish maltreatment.
"There's many Zahras in this country," said Maiden Mayor Bob Smyre. "We have many children that go to school every morning and are abused by their parents, by their guardians."
But there doesn't have to be more cases like Zahra's, officials said.
CPS is a 24-hour, seven days a week service. Concerned citizens can report child abuse concerns by calling (828) 324-9111 anytime.
"So many thoughts are in our minds with regards to child abuse," said Claremont Mayor David Morrow. "It's so good to have the recognition of our elected officials and our law enforcement, so we, too, can prevent child abuse."
Most of Catawba County CPS reports came from concerned law enforcement and medical personnel officials. Twenty-one percent of CPS reports came from human services personnel; 18 percent came from a parent or a relative; 10 percent came from educational personnel; 10 percent came from a non-relative; 10 percent were from anonymous sources; and 1 percent came from a child care providers and victims.
"The city of Newton is committed to the protection of our most valuable asset as a community — and that is our children," said Newton Police Chief Don Brown, who spoke at the event on the city of Newton's behalf.
Children who receive child protective services range in ages from birth to 18 years old. About 43 percent of those children are between the ages of birth and 5 years old. Thirty-two percent range in ages from 6-11; and the remaining 25 percent are from 12-18 years old.
Regardless of the ages of the children involved in child abuse, officials said the violence can affect those children for years to come.
"They're going to be our future mayors, our future congressmen," Smyre said. "They're going to be our future everything."
Mayors and other officials attending Friday's event wore pinwheel emblems on their lapels, symbolizing the Pinwheels for Prevention campaign. Prevent Child Abuse America, an organization committed to eradicating child abuse, adopted the pinwheel campaign to remind others about child abuse and its effects.
The pinwheel symbolizes the organization's effort to change the way the public thinks about child abuse and motivate Americans to do something about it.