“It’s really hard to be a parent in any circumstance,” reflected Sallie Starrett, CEO and executive director of Brightpaths. “But if you have to work two jobs, if you’re a single parent or if you didn’t have good parenting modeled for you by your parents, then it’s even harder.” 

Brightpaths is not only dedicated to preventing child abuse. The Oconee nonprofit also works with families in the area who simply need help. 

“Our ultimate vision is a community free of child abuse and neglect, and we’re working toward that every day by building safe and stable families through connection, education and support,” said Starrett, an alumna of Oconee County High School.

Brightpaths starts by identifying the children and families who are at risk of maltreatment, using societal, familial and individual risk factors. 

“A lot of times we see families … who are doing the best they know how [but] they just need some support,” Starrett said. “So, we work with families whose kids have been identified as being at risk of maltreatment, for reasons that oftentimes have nothing to do with the parent.”

After identifying the families who need help, Brightpaths provides resources and support in the form of free parenting classes and its First Steps program for new parents. 

“Every parent needs support, and the levels of support they need are different,” Starrett said. 

With the Healthy Families program, child abuse is prevented with long-term intensive home visitation services. Family support workers screen families for maternal depression and interpersonal violence. They also screen children for developmental progress. 

“We’re able to provide early intervention when it looks like a child might need some help,” Starrett said. “And we’re able to support the parents as they learn to advocate for their child.” 

Starrett hopes she’ll work herself out of a job as Brightpaths continues to prevent abuse, but the need is still there, even in Oconee County, where 168 maltreatment reports were made in 2020. 

“Not all of those were substantiated,” Starrett explained, “but it means that reports were made for 168 children where someone said, ‘I think something is going on, and this family needs some help.’”

In Georgia, 22 children are the victims of abuse or neglect every day, and nearly 118 incidents of child abuse or neglect are reported daily, according to Georgia Court Appointed Special Advocates, Inc. 

“The need is definitely there and continues to be there,” Starrett said. 

Starrett wants the community to recognize that some parents don’t have a great deal of support to lean on. Whereas some parents can lean on help from a mom, a mother-in-law, friends or a church group, others can’t, and that leads parents to make difficult choices.

For instance, some parents leave a young child home alone in order to work a second job, which is considered neglect of supervision. But choosing not to go to work may mean they can’t put food on the table.

“We want to help people understand that most parents are trying their best,” Starrett said. “The families we work with are great people and love their kids, as much as I love my kids, as much as anybody loves their kids.”

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. For anyone wanting to donate or volunteer with the nonprofit, visit brightpathsathens.org. To report child abuse or neglect, call 1 (855) 422-4453. 

For more on this story, see the April 7 edition of The Oconee Enterprise, on sale now at convenience stores and grocery stores and newspaper boxes throughout Oconee County. To subscribe, call (706) 769-5175 or visit the tab on our website. 

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