‘What a Miracle am I’

Community urged to be part of solution to longtime problem

Mirror photos by Gary M. Baranec Pre-school children from Kids First Lily Pond Day Care Center wear blue T-shirts as they perform “Oh, What a Miracle am I” outside the Blair County Courthouse, Hollidaysburg, during a Child Abuse Prevention Month ceremony Wednesday. Speakers during the annual ceremony called on the community to become involved in curtailing abuse.

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County leaders combined efforts Wednesday to draw attention to the longtime prevalent issue of child abuse.

“My office alone cannot stop child abuse,” county Children, Youth & Families administrator Ashley Gehrdes told about 100 people who joined together outside the Blair County Courthouse to watch the raising of a flag in recognition of April as Child Abuse Prevention Month. “This is a community issue,” Gehrdes said.

During what’s become an annual ceremony, several speakers called for more personal involvement in a persistent problem.

Since the Blair County Center for Child Justice opened Sept. 22, 2017, on Howard Avenue in Altoona, 228 children have been interviewed as possible victims of child abuse. That includes 161 interviews, Director Ashley Owens said, that were conducted in 2018 with local children between 3 and 17 years old. And 93 percent of the alleged abusers were people the children knew and trusted, she added.

Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb called the opening of the Center for Child Justice as “a giant step toward better addressing the needs of abused children.” But he also suggested that people look for ways to provide personal help.

District Attorney Richard Consiglio acknowledged that by the time he and his prosecutors get involved in abuse cases, the damage is already done to the children.

“It’s hard to believe that people break their bones, sexually assault them, starve them and do things of that nature,” he said.

As a means of prevention, Consiglio recommended vigilance and disclosure.

“If you see something that appears to be child abuse, report it,” the district attorney said. “Don’t stand around and forget about it. … Say something to somebody.”

Judge Jackie Bernard also called upon people to become involved.

She referenced Bonnie Finney of Norfolk, Va., a grandmother who tied a blue ribbon on her vehicle in memory of her 3-year-old grandson, a victim of child abuse. Finney described the blue ribbon as a representation of her grandson’s bruises and as her way of drawing attention to child abuse.

“That one blue ribbon has become a national symbol for child abuse prevention,” Bernard said.

In preparation for Wednesday’s ceremony, a grassy area next to the Courthouse was decorated with blue pinwheels, flowers and ribbons. Pre-school children from the Kids First Lily Pond Day Care Center wore blue T-shirts to participate in the event. And the Laurel Highlands Chapter of Bikers Against Child Abuse participated in the event by escorting the children there.

Sheriff James Ott served as master of ceremonies and recognized a line-up of several law enforcement officers who joined the event in support.

Ott also offered his thanks to the day care children who sang “Oh, What a Miracle am I” and drew applause for the performance.

“That’s our future, right there,” the sheriff said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.