PARKERSBURG - Five children sat, smiling and fidgeting a bit as speeches were made Friday during the annual Children's Flag Day Memorial program at the Municipal Building.
They were a happy sight doubling as a grim reminder - each child represented one preventable child death recorded in Wood County in 2013.
"We won't hear their laughter. We won't see their smiles," said Laurea Ellis, social service coordinator for Region 1 of the West Virginia Division of Health and Human Resources.
Clockwise from left, Clay Carpenter; his mother, Megan; father, Mikel; Tracey McClung; her granddaughter, Skylar Bennette; Bennette’s mother, Tabetha McClung; and Brooklynn Carpenter, Clay’s sister, participate in a balloon release on the bridge leading to the Parkersburg Municipal Building as part of Friday’s Children’s Flag Day Memorial program, commemorating preventable child deaths and the people who work to stop them. (Photo by Evan Bevins)
Ellis could not discuss the specific circumstances under which the children died, but said their deaths could have been due to violence, abuse or neglect. She noted local Child Protective Services officials received 1,841 referrals of suspected abuse in 2013 and have already gotten more than 500 reports this year.
The memorial is marked around the state each year on the fourth Friday of April, which is National Child Abuse Awareness Month. The flag, designed more than a decade ago by a California high school student, displays blue, paper doll-like figures with linked hands on a red background.
In the center is the outline of another figure, symbolizing children who have been lost to preventable causes.
Although Friday's rain prevented the flag from being raised on the pole between the Municipal Building and the courthouse during the ceremony, more than 100 people gathered on the bridge outside the city building to release blue balloons in honor of child abuse awareness.
The rest of the ceremony was held in the executive conference room on the second floor of the Municipal Building, where agencies providing services to children in the area were set up.
"We're recognizing the children we lost," Ellis said. "But also we recognize those with courage who go above and beyond" to help them.
This year's award recipients were:
* Rachel Deem, a Child Protective Services worker assigned to the court unit whose presence Ellis said makes children's lives better.
* Parkersburg Police Lt. Greg Collins, who has assisted in training both law enforcement and social workers and works with Try Again Homes.
* Wood County Sheriff's Detective Shana Modesitt, who investigates child sexual assault, physical abuse and death cases.
* Clint Suggs, coordinator of Wake the World-West Virginia, which provides water recreation opportunities to local youth in foster care, the juvenile system and community-based programs.
Ellis was surprised to find herself receiving an award as well, presented by Lisa Sutton, executive director of the Children's Listening Place, a new child advocacy center opening this summer on Market Street.
"I've known Laurea for years," Sutton said. "She's very involved with everything in the community, and I felt like she needed to be recognized for the hard work that she does."
Ellis, who has worked for DHHR for 18 years, said she was humbled by the honor.
"I believe that we do make a difference," she said. "I'm grateful that God has given me the energy and the stamina and the drive to do this."
Sutton encouraged those present to stand up for children who can't stand up for themselves.
"Abused children need your intervention," she said. "If you're concerned that a child is being abused, it's better to be safe than sorry."