Wear Blue Day marks Child Abuse Prevention MonthWritten by Sarah Ottney | Editor in Chief | firstname.lastname@example.org
When her young daughter fell out of a second-story window, Lee Campbell was high and afraid of going to jail. Instead of seeking medical attention, she put a bag of frozen peas on the child’s head and smoked some more crack.
“I was high and not caring about anybody but myself,” the Toledo woman said. “I never took her to the ER. I never did nothing. It was only by the grace of God she survived.”
Eventually Campbell came under the scrutiny of Lucas County Children Services (LCCS), which placed her five children in the care of her mother.
Pebbles Spencer regularly left her four kids in the care of family members while she went out drinking. Her nights usually ended in fights that landed her in and out of jail. Eventually she was also reported to LCCS.
“My caseworker told me to look in the mirror and ask ‘Is this what you want to do? Is this you?’ And when I looked in the mirror, I just started crying,” she said.
Campbell and Spencer are no longer the women they once were, women who regularly made choices that harmed themselves and their children. Today they are sober, reunited with their children and among the parent volunteers now helping other local parents navigate LCCS programs.
“Every day, you have a choice to do something different. You do not have to be who you were,” Campbell said. “You can say, ‘This is my story, but that’s not who I am.’”
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month and April 9 is the third annual Wear Blue Day in Lucas County.
“It’s something fairly simple, but it’s something that can be very meaningful,” said LCCS Executive Director Dean Sparks. “This is a time when we want to acknowledge that child abuse and neglect are a problem in our town and we’re going to do what we can. We’re going to commit the resources and unite to say child abuse is 100 percent preventable and we’re going to do everything we can to prevent it. All of us wearing blue shirts that day are standing up and saying, ‘I’m part of that.’”
As many as 1,800 children die in the U.S. from abuse or neglect each year, Sparks said.
Each April, LCCS holds a memorial ceremony for Lucas County children who have died in the past year from abuse, neglect or street violence.
This year’s ceremony will be 11:30 a.m. April 25 at LCCS, 705 Adams St. Twelve children were memorialized at last year’s ceremony, the most since Sparks started the memorial services more than a decade ago. This year, 18-month-old Elaina Steinfurth will be remembered.
The East Toledo toddler was killed in June after being thrown across the room by her mother and suffocated by her mother’s boyfriend. The months-long search for the girl drew national attention until her body was discovered hidden in the garage. Her mother and boyfriend were sentenced to life in prison.
“Whenever a child is senselessly murdered or killed, that takes a bit out of all of us I think,” Sparks said. “We do the memorial services to help our community heal, for our staff to be able to be introspective and understand how important it is what they do, and to say we must continue to fight against child abuse because it still happens, it’s real and the consequences are dire.”
The Lucas County Coroner’s Office is still reviewing records to make sure there are no other children to include in the memorial this year, said LCCS public information officer Julie Malkin.
Sparks said many people don’t report suspected abuse or neglect because they aren’t sure or they feel it’s none of their business. Others are afraid the person they want to report will find out and retaliate.
Reports can be left anonymously, but even if callers leave their name, LCCS never reveals who called, Sparks said. The agency’s hotline, (419) 213-CARE (2273), is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“When there are high-profile cases like Elaina Steinfurth’s, it heightens awareness and people call us because they are afraid the same thing is going to happen to a child they know,” Sparks said. “It strips away those excuses people have and pushes people to make some reports.”
Lucas County stats
In 2013, LCCS received 4,840 referrals involving 7,323 children. Investigations determined 952 were abused or neglected, according to the agency’s annual report.
Fifty-two percent of investigations were for alleged physical abuse, 33 percent for neglect, 12 percent for sexual abuse and 2 percent for emotional abuse.
Of new cases opened in 2013, 44 percent of families were white, 30 percent were African-American and 24 percent were multiracial, according to LCCS. Two percent were categorized as “other or race unknown.”
About 70 percent of LCCS cases involve substance abuse. Of the drug cases, 80 percent involve heroin or prescription opiates, Sparks said. Human trafficking makes up another growing segment of LCCS cases, with about 15 victims currently in LCCS care, he said.
Sleep-related infant deaths are another category that seems to be on the rise, Sparks said. Lucas County recorded six deaths in 2010, five in 2011 and 16 in 2012, he said. Before 2009, most sleep-related deaths were classified as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Now, investigators consider other unsafe factors, such as co-sleeping, particularly with an adult under the influence of alcohol or drugs; stomach sleeping; or sleeping with blankets, stuffed animals or bumper pads.
The Parent Partnership Program has been used by LCCS for about four years, Sparks said. It is an expansion of LCCS’ Building a Better Future program. Campbell has been volunteering with the program for six years and Spencer for more than two years.
“I started thinking, all this stuff in my past couldn’t have been for nothing,” Campbell said. “God can take anything bad and turn it into good for someone else.”
“When I was in the streets, I was doing more taking than giving,” Spencer said. “I’m a walking testimony to let them know they aren’t alone and if they listen, they don’t have to go as far as I went.”
Life as Campbell knew it ended at age 6. That’s when she moved to Toledo with her mom and her mom’s new boyfriend, who abused her mom and raped and molested Lee until he died when she was 15.
“I remember coming here to Toledo and everything just stopped,” Campbell said. “I prayed to die every day. Somebody told me if you’re in total darkness, God will come to you and talk to you right there and save you, so I used to climb in these big black garbage bags, thinking God will come to me. When he didn’t, I knew there wasn’t a God, that God and the devil were the same person. I believed that for years.
“Nobody ever spoke against it,” Campbell said of her abuse. “I was just that invisible person that no one could see. Nobody wondered, ‘Why does she not talk? Why does she have accidents at school and she’s 12 years old? What’s going on?’ Nobody questioned it. It was just, ‘Oh she’s just dirty, she’s nasty, she’s slow.’ [After he died] I had to figure out a way to kill that little girl off.”
After her abuser died, she started using pills and alcohol to dull the pain. She turned to prostitution. She drank and used drugs during all her pregnancies and tried to kill herself twice.
“I didn’t think it was wrong. This was normal,” Campbell said. “My life was broken from the beginning of time.”
A neighbor finally called LCCS after seeing one of Campbell’s daughters enter a neighborhood crack house looking for her, but Campbell managed to avoid the caseworker for months. Finally she was ordered to appear in court. When she didn’t show up, her mother was given custody of the kids. A few days later, Campbell got angry when her mom refused to let her see her children.
“I said, ‘You’re the reason this is all happening. You’re the reason I’m the way I am. You destroyed my life,’” Campbell said.
In a drug-fueled rage, she threatened to kill her mother, her children and herself and was arrested.
“I just wanted the pain to stop. When you have a lifetime of brokenness and trauma and you’re medicating with drugs and alcohol and not speaking about it, not trying to heal from it, it destroys every bit of proper thinking,” Campbell said. “I just thought it would be easier if they were gone and she was gone and then me gone. It would stop my kids from suffering. That’s where my mind was.”
In jail, she started reading the Bible and decided to get sober. She later regained custody of her children and founded Rahab’s Heart, a local outreach ministry that helps adult women who are street prostitutes and drug addicts.
“God has really worked miracles in my life because I used to be a very ugly person,” Campbell said. “What a blessing it was for somebody to intervene and save my own five kids. I could definitely have lost any of my kids to the streets because of my own ignorance. If it wasn’t for [LCCS], my daughter would be a prostitute. My boys would be dead or drug dealers. My twin daughters would probably be dead. Because I was no kind of mother. I was planting the same seeds in them as were planted in me.
“I just really try to tell [parents] how important it is to move forward, to say, ‘OK, you made some bad choices.’ I did, too. This is what I did, but you don’t have to live in that today.”
Growing up in Toledo, Spencer was something of a wild child — known for fighting in the streets. Her dad, with whom she was close, died when she was 16.
“I was basically a rebel. I wanted to do what I wanted to do,” she said. “I went out in the world to find family and ran into the wrong people.”
While raising her four children, her alcohol use “got out of hand.” She never got violent toward her kids, but picked fights with just about everyone else, she said.
“I used to go from zero to 45 in getting angry. I couldn’t understand how my son had so much anger, but I showed him that,” Spencer said. “I just made wrong decisions. I caused a lot of violence. My therapists say I was reaching out for a lot of attention.”
Spencer’s sister reported her to LCCS the first time, a neighbor a second time. She now calls both instances “a blessing and a wake-up call.”
“Being drunk, you couldn’t know everything that was going on. You couldn’t pay attention to how they feel and what they were going through,” Spencer said of her kids. “I was tired but didn’t know no other way to go. I was just so wrapped up in that mode, I didn’t know how to get out.”
At first, Spencer brushed off LCCS’ attempts to help, but eventually realized she needed to make a change.
“Looking in the mirror made me think, ‘Well hey, I’ve been doing it this way; let’s try another way. Let’s do something different. And follow through this time,’” she said.
Spencer and Campbell both said recovery is an ongoing process, but are confident in their forward progress.
“I don’t think relapse is a part of everybody’s story,” Campbell said. “I’ve been given a beautiful life from the beginning until now. That past has made me the strong woman I am today who can reach out to people and say, ‘Look, you don’t have to be there. I’m going to be the shadow walking with you until you’re ready to change.’”
LCCS is encouraging people wearing blue April 9 to post photos on the agency’s Facebook page, tweet photos to
@LucasCoOHKids or email photos to email@example.com. For more information, visit lucaskids.net.
Tags: Ameer Kabour, Brandon Jones, Child Abuse Prevention Month, Dean Sparks, Elaina Steinfurth, Emilie Voss, human trafficking, Jim Walrod, Julie Malkin, LCCS, Lee Campbell, Lucas County Children Services, Lucas County Coroner’s Office, Pebbles Spencer, Rahab’s Heart, Sara Hegarty, SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Sue Stevenson, Wear Blue Day