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Hugh Carey, Deseret News
The Pinwheel Prevention garden, planted in honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month, is at the Multi-Agency State Office Building beginning Wednesday, April 9, 2014, in Salt Lake City.
Communities and organizations that work together to cultivate strong, knowledgeable families are our best defense against child maltreatment. By supporting and empowering families, we allow children to thrive and our communities to prosper. —Ann Williamson, Utah Department of Human Services

SALT LAKE CITY — Per capita, Utah has the highest number of young people in the country, and local advocates say it's everyone's job to make sure they grow up emotionally healthy and free from abuse and neglect.

"Our children are our most valued resource, not only today, but for the promise of a bright future," said Ann Williamson, executive director of the Utah Department of Human Services.

Communities need to work together to cultivate strong families, she said.

"All parents seek support in child-rearing," Williamson said, adding that as neighbors, friends, church leaders, teachers and more, Utahns need to "keep an eye on our kids — because they're all our kids."

Williamson led a group of state employees and advocates for child abuse prevention in planting hundreds of bright blue pinwheels in the ground in honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month on Wednesday at the Multi-Agency State Office Building.

Similar pinwheel gardens will be popping up all over the state, and in neighborhoods where people have purchased pinwheels, a symbol of a "bright and joyful childhood," she said.

"All kids deserve a carefree childhood," said Charri Brummer, deputy director of the Utah Division of Child and Family Services. "Everyone has the right to grow up to be a successful adult," which she defines as having "a great sense of emotional well-being."

That sense shouldn't be marred by another person's wrongdoing, she said.

Child abuse and neglect, Brummer said, are often the result of a parent's or other adult's lack of education, upbringing or past experiences and are often made worse by mental illness or substance abuse disorders. They also result from domestic violence in the home.

"Alcohol lowers a person's inhibitions, decreasing their tolerance and making a person more likely to hurt a child," she said.

The pinwheels, Brummer said, "help remind people that children are out there" and help to raise awareness and get people talking about the issue of child abuse.

Utah Child Protective Services, which investigates child abuse and neglect in the state, looked into 19,038 cases last year, 34 percent of which were confirmed, according to the DCFS annual report.

The majority of victims are age 10 and younger, and their perpetrators are almost always related, with 72 percent of the abuse and/or neglect coming from a parent, 16 percent from another relative, and 12 percent of cases caused by a nonrelated individual, according to 2013 statistics.

Approximately 28 percent of child abuse cases in Utah involve sexual abuse, with perpetrators most likely not being related to their child victims, according to the report.

"It's a big problem," said Trina Taylor, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Utah.

Nationally, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually assaulted by age 18, she said.

"Abuse holds no bounds," Taylor said, adding that abuse is present in all demographics and across all income and education levels.

It is also severely underreported, she said, with only 1 in 10 cases reported, likely due to the shame and embarrassment it causes the victim.

Prevent Child Abuse Utah conducts school programs and in-home counseling to teach kids to trust their "uh-oh feeling," as it is called in the educational program.

"If something seems wrong or not quite right, it probably isn't," Taylor said. Kids are encouraged to "say no" to stop what is happening to them and then tell someone they trust about it immediately.

Utah's DCFS provides nearly $3 million to support community partners in their child abuse prevention efforts and to oversee programs and services delivered to Utah's children and families.

To purchase pinwheels for a business or home display, visit www.preventchildabuseutah.org.

Proceeds help support crisis/respite nurseries, parenting classes, family counseling, school-based education initiatives, in-home services for families, after-school programs and public awareness campaigns throughout the state.

In 2012, more than 70,000 Utah children and families were served by such programs. For more information, visit www.dcfs.utah.gov.

"Communities and organizations that work together to cultivate strong, knowledgeable families are our best defense against child maltreatment," Williamson said. "By supporting and empowering families, we allow children to thrive and our communities to prosper."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards