This year, 2016, marks 40 years since the CAPS mission – to prevent child abuse in Elkhart County – officially began. In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing a few stories about some of the people who were there at the beginning, working to ensure that all kids have a safe, healthy and happy childhood.

In 1973, a young caseworker named Daryl Abbott at the Elkhart Department of Welfare started digging through data to answer the question “how many children have been abused in Elkhart in the last year?”

At the time, research on child abuse was an emerging field. Working in the social service sector gave Daryl a close-up view of the injuries and maltreatment children experienced in the community. His agency kept statistics on injuries and deaths, but it wasn’t yet called “child abuse.”

“It was something I think the public was just beginning to become aware of, so we had a lot of education to do to make people aware that child abuse was actually a problem in our community and really a problem everywhere,” Abbott said. His initial research found 238 potential cases of child abuse involving more than 600 children in the previous year.

The question had come from a small group of concerned citizens including Ruth Gattman, a registered nurse and member of the AMA Women’s Auxiliary. Abbott brought his findings to the third meeting of the group in 1973 and started working with the group to find – or create – resources in the community to prevent children from being hurt. They had to make new connections in health care, law enforcement, schools and other child-serving professions to figure out what the whole picture of child well-being looked like.

“It made us work that much harder, I think, because we had a lot of learning to do,” Abbott said.

In those early days, Abbott and the rest of the group worked to build support for their mission in the community. They attended public meetings, sat down with business leaders, and introduced themselves at existing nonprofit and government-funded agencies and organizations.

“There was no money then, for anything,” Gattman said. The group gradually found that, while certain entities worked with families and children, there was no organized effort to ensure the safety of children.

In 1974, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which for the first time established federal guidelines for keeping children safe from various forms of abuse and neglect. Now Abbott and his fellow investigators and advocates had a nationally recognized cause.

Eventually, the group caught the attention of the local United Way chapter, which formally enlisted them to complete their work. United Way brought a few local business leaders on board to examine what could be done, including Charles Owens, an executive at Miles Laboratories, who led the newly anointed Child Abuse Task Force.

“It was now a law,” Abbott said. “it was the responsibility of everybody to report cases of child abuse. So we spent a lot of time trying to educate the community on reporting cases: What to do, where to report it, that kind of thing.”

When the task force formally finished its work in 1976 with a recommendation to the then-named Child Health Society to hire the county’s first child abuse prevention program coordinator, Abbott’s job wasn’t quite finished. He applied for and was named to that position in early 1977, a position that launched a career of more than 30 years at the agency that would become CAPS.

In his time as President/CEO of CAPS, Abbott oversaw the growth of child abuse prevention programs from unfunded volunteer-led efforts to federally and state-funded, research-backed programs that serve hundreds of families per year. Every one of CAPS’s current programs began under Abbott’s direction.

Abbott retired in 2009, but it’s still child abuse prevention and community education on the issue that is the core of the work here at CAPS: What is abuse and how to report and prevent it.

“Those things continue to be important, even today, so that people know if they see something, what to do to get it reported,” Abbott said.

– By Andrew Hershberger

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