Prevent Child Abuse holds Coweta Vigil

by Wes Mayer


Daryle Smith speaks at the vigil for child abuse victims at Greenville Street Park Thursday evening. From left, Smith, Helen Passantino, Reverend Mr. Scott Parker, Pete Skandalakis and Susan Ebersbach. 

To remember the many children who have become victims of neglect, mistreatment and abuse, Prevent Child Abuse Coweta held a vigil at Greenville Street Park Thursday.

April is Prevent Child Abuse Awareness Month, and every year, the organization holds an annual vigil in Newnan. This was the 10th anniversary of the vigil, and five guest speakers, introduced by Prevent Child Abuse Coweta Director Susan Ebersbach, stood to tell their life experiences with child abuse and neglect. Music was also performed by Destiny Reeves, a student at Newnan High School, and Karen Hurd, director of choral music at The Heritage School.

Helen Passantino, past president of Prevent Child Abuse Coweta, opened the vigil by saying it is time for the community to stand together and remember all the children who have been abused and neglected, and remember those who have died. Children are a gift from God, she said, and they are our most precious treasure. They don’t have a voice, but we – adults – do.

“You will never stand taller than when you stoop to help a child,” Passantino said.

Alicia Fergerson then stood to tell her story – how she lost one of her children to shaken baby syndrome. One day, while she was not home, Fergerson’s babysitter shook her baby son to stop him from crying. Fergerson’s son died.

“You can’t take any day for granted,” Fergerson said. “You have to spend every minute with them.”

She said the babysitter was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the death of her son.

Daryle Smith, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club, then stood to tell the story of a mother he knew who was told all her life that she could not have children. One week, this mother began to have severe stomach pain, so she went to the doctor. There, she found out some good news and bad news. She was three weeks pregnant, but because of cysteine tumors on her uterus, her doctor did not think the baby would make it.

When she told this to her boyfriend, he left her, Smith said.

She became depressed, and soon she met a man who told her he had a cure for her depression – she then became addicted to heroin. Smith said the doctors told her over and over again to quit doing drugs because it would kill the baby, but the mother could not stop. Miraculously, the baby continued to grow, and she gave birth to a 10 pound, eight ounce baby.

After the baby was born, the mother got into a relationship with her drug dealer, and he began to beat her. Smith said the mother told him that whenever the two would fight, the baby would get out of his crib and run in between the two to break them apart.

One day, after weeks of the baby running between them, the drug-dealing boyfriend threw the baby across the room. Another day, the boyfriend grabbed the baby and tried to drown him in the tub.

“How many of you think that baby died?” Smith asked those gathered at Thursday’s vigil. “I’m standing right here 40 years later.”

Fortunately, a neighbor heard screaming, called police and authorities came to take the baby away, Smith said. His mother told him that story when he grew up, and he always shares it at vigils such as the one at Newnan’s Greenville Street Park. He likes to tell how many victims of abuse are still alive, and it is up to them to break the cycle of abuse by showing love to the mothers, fathers and families who have suffered from abuse.

Reverend Mr. Scott Parker, a Catholic deacon for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, spoke about his experiences with abuse across the world. Parker has traveled to four different continents and has lived in 14 different countries while serving in the U.S. Navy, and he’s learned how many different cultures deal with child abuse.

From the books of Luke and Matthew in the Bible, Jesus taught that all children should be seen and heard – meaning they should be a part of the community. He said that it is the community’s responsibility to raise the community’s children.

Parker said that if he ever sees a child being neglected or abused, at risk of becoming verbally or physically reprimanded, he will always tell the abuser what they are doing is wrong.

“If you see something, say something,” Parker said. “We, as adults, know what is right and wrong. It behooves us to help them because they can’t help themselves.”

Pete Skandalakis, Coweta Judicial Circuit district attorney, shared some of his experiences with child abuse as an attorney. When Ebersbach introduced Skandalakis, she praised him on developing one of the best victim support programs in Georgia.

Skandalakis told the story of one of the first cases he prosecuted that involved a girl in kindergarten who was molested and abused by her adopted parents. The story began when the child’s teacher noticed that even in the hottest months, the shy child would always wear long sleeves and long pants. One day, the teacher spoke to the girl privately, and when the teacher put her hand on the girl’s back, she flinched.

The teacher asked the child if she could look at her back – when she did she found numerous horizontal slashes lining the young girl’s back, Skandalakis said. Authorities were contacted, and during the investigation, it was discovered that the child’s adopted parents not only physically abused her, but raped and molested her all her life. The child never spoke a word about it.

Skandalakis prosecuted the case and the two adopted parents were found guilty. He told the story of how the child testified in court while holding a giant teddy bear – she couldn’t tell the jury how she was abused, but she was able to show them what they did to her on the teddy bear.

The girl was later adopted by two loving parents, Skandalakis said.

Skandalakis said that four children die every day nationwide as victims of child abuse, and there are 100 cases of child abuse every year in Coweta County alone.

“We have to help parents be better parents,” Skandalakis said. “Many of them have been raised where violence is a way of life, where addiction is a way of life. We have to reach out to everybody, and it’s going to take a community to do it.”

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