See something, say something: Onslow task force speaks to community on fight against child abuse

T.A.S.C.O. members came together for a town hall meeting Tuesday evening to talk about the fight against child abuse in Onslow County.
T.A.S.C.O. members came together for a town hall meeting Tuesday evening to talk about the fight against child abuse in Onslow County.

An Onslow County task force held a town hall meeting Tuesday night to discuss the fight against the increase in child abuse numbers in recent years.

Turning Adversity into Success for Children in Onslow (TASCO) is a multidisciplinary task force that is a partnership between Onslow County and the city of Jacksonville, according to a recent news release from United Way of Onslow.

TASCO is comprised of over 30 stakeholders and participating community members, the release explained, and works to eliminate child abuse and neglect by building safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments in Onslow County. The release added TASCO is committed to eliminating child abuse and neglect in the community through education, awareness, intervention and advocacy.

The town hall featured an open panel discussion with government officials, law enforcement officials and service agencies in the community.

"We're in a real battle," said Panel Moderator Elliot Potter. "There's been an increase in crimes against children in our community since the rise of COVID in 2020."

Statistics from the Onslow County Sheriff's Office relayed by Potter during the meeting revealed there were 130 total cases of child abuse in 2020. In 2021, that number rose to 163 and to 170 in 2022.

Specifically, Potter said there were 50 abuse cases in 2020, 25 in 2021 and 43 in 2022. Neglect cases have also risen from 33 in 2020 to 51 in 2022.

"Since the spread of COVID in 2020, child abuse cases have also been on the rise in the city of Jacksonville," Potter said. "In the city, there have been five child deaths linked to abuse and neglect in the past three years, including four in children under the age of one."

PEERS Family Development Center Executive Director Tondrea Leach said TASCO was formed in 2018 alongside Jacksonville Police Chief Michael Yaniero.

TASCO's goal is to educate parents, teachers, caregivers and professionals on gaining an understanding of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences); helping children identify feelings and manage emotions; creating safe physical and emotional environments at home, school and in neighborhoods; and child maltreatment prevention by building capacity of parents and prevention partners.

"I've worked many years in child protective services," Leach said. "I've never met a parent that didn't love their children. I don't want anybody to think that anyone is up here saying, just because we have child neglect and abuse in our community, parents don't love their kids. They do love their kids. It's just because of the way they were brought up, the way they're raising their children. We need to help them. We need to partner with them and that's what we're here to do."

Onslow County Sheriff's Office Captain Linwood "Benji' Foy said child abuse and neglect is not a crime that typically happens out in the open. It's usually more secretive and stays within the family.

Jacksonville Police Department Detective Julia Parrish said the area's younger population is part of the problem.

"This is a very young population, first time away from their parents," Parrish said. "They come here, and they don't have the local support system here. On top of that, they're overwhelmed. They're overwhelmed with working, putting kids through school, marriage, trying to have a social life, just trying to juggle everything."

Parrish added the department also sees issues due to co-parenting struggles, finances and inattentive parents too busy on social media or playing video games.

The strong relationship between Onslow County law enforcement and the Department of Social Services is a big help in combatting some of these struggles.

"People have a fear of reporting and they have a fear of saying something because it might not turn out right or they're embarrassed," Parrish said. "The fear of law enforcement getting involved or not trusting DSS. When we work these cases, from our very first conversation with the parents, we let them know that it's not an us against them situation, it's us working together."

Deputy Director of Social Services Susan Thigpen said the largest responsibility DSS has is doing everything possible to ensure that children grow up in a safe and healthy environment.

In the last fiscal year, Thigpen said DSS had 3,091 reports of abuse and neglect involving 1,854 families.

For anyone concerned abuse or neglect may be occurring to a child, all reports to DSS are confidential and can be anonymous. To make a report, you don't have to prove abuse or neglect has occurred or have evidence that something has happened.

Thigpen said you just need a reason to suspect it may be occurring and DSS will determine if it meets the guidelines and if they need to assess.

"Out of all the families that we do assess, there's only a small number of children that ever come into agency custody," Thigpen said. "I think our greatest success is that we are able to work with families and keep children in their homes with their parents by providing the services and resources that are needed to keep these children safe."

She said that 210 children came into custody last year and 70 of those exited care with 61 of those 70 exited to reunification with their parents or to some other relatives or caretakers.

The agency looks at every other option prior to removal, Thigpen added.

Other agencies involved in TASCO that provide resources to families in Onslow County include One Place and the Onslow County Health Department.

Vice President of Advocacy at One Place Kathleen Holbrook said they do everything from child forensic interviews to comprehensive medical exams and advocacy - a one stop shop.

However, Holbrook said the county lacks pediatric specialties and funding, which has created a gap.

"We need a whole lot more funding for services because we have a very high rate of abuse and neglect in Onslow County, and we want to be able to adequately fund it," Holbrook said. "Unfortunately, there's very little funding for prevention."

Director of the Onslow County Health Department Kristen Richmond-Hoover said part of what they do at the health department includes performing well-child exams and checks.

"One of our goals is to shift this from an individual responsibility to community solutions and realizing that the only way we really will ever get a handle on it is by banding together and as a community we can establish what the social norms are," Richmond-Hoover said. "If we create social norms that reduce violence and create a safe and stable environment for young families, that's going to go a long way in getting us to where we need to be."

Community members present at the town hall meeting shared concerns that those really in need of the resources weren't in attendance to hear about them.

Jacksonville City Councilman Brian Jackson, also in attendance, agreed.

"Unfortunately, we're not reaching the ones we really need to reach," Jackson said. "But we will reach the ones that can reach the ones that need to reach the ones, but we've got to have the will to do that."

This was the first of quarterly scheduled town halls to address child abuse in Onslow County. The town halls are in-person but the option to view at home is available through G10 Jacksonville-Onslow Government Television. Tuesday night's town hall is also available to view on the Jacksonville Government Facebook page.

"To get this problem solved, it's going to take a village," Potter said. "It will take the entire community to get this done."

Reporter Morgan Starling can be reached at 

This article originally appeared on The Daily News: See something, say something: Onslow task force speaks to community on fight against child abuse