By David Cruz
The theme of the conference is “Invisible No More.” Its purpose is raising awareness about an issue that affects 6 million kids in America every year. Evelyn Mejil is executive director of Wynona’s House, a child advocacy center, and host for the event in Newark today.
“When 6 million children are being neglected and abused, that’s significant and we just decided that we needed to raise awareness on this issue, not just for the children who are being served at Wynona’s House, not just for the children of Essex County or the state of New Jersey, but on a national level,” she said as the conference kicked off this morning.
Today’s opening day featured an array of speakers from non-profits, private foundations, government and law enforcement, including Sen. Cory Booker and U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman who reported some startling numbers from a study done by the Department of Justice.
“The majority of our kids, more than 60 percent, have been exposed to crime, abuse and violence, many in their own homes,” noted Fishman. “Ten percent of children in the United States have suffered some sort of abuse or neglect. One in 16 has been victimized sexually.”
Booker’s stats were equally disheartening.
“We now know that 30 percent of abused children will later go on to abuse children themselves, thus continuing this horrific cycle,” he said. “Fourteen percent of men in prison today and 36 percent of women were once abused as children.”
The numbers speak to a crisis unabated, despite the best efforts of the men and women in the room today. Senate President Steve Sweeney said it doesn’t help matters when elected leaders use funding for these programs to make political points.
“This is an issue that — a couple of years ago — I made some headlines when I exploded on the administration for cutting funding for programs like the Wynona Lippman House, programs that actually help children that basically had their innocence stolen from them,” added Sweeney.
And raising awareness is starting to pay dividends, says Mejil.
“A lot of people took it as a bad sign that we have over 10,000 cases versus last year when we had 8,000 cases,” she said, “but I see that as a sign as the community getting more involved and they’re becoming more educated about the problem and so they’re more efficient in making sure that our children are more protected.”
The conference continues tomorrow with a full day of workshops and a gala fundraiser honoring, among others, Robert Laurino, who helped prosecute the Glen Ridge rape case 25 years ago.