Town Hall meeting

Steve Reynolds, left, discusses criticisms of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Parks and Recreation Authority as Moultrie city councilmen Cornelius Ponder and Lisa Clarke Hill look on Monday at a town hall meeting at A.F. Shaw Gymnasium.

MOULTRIE, Ga. — Issues of children and youth dominated a town hall meeting Monday in Northwest Moultrie.

The event, held in Shaw Gym, drew about 150 people.

Moultrie City Councilman Cornelius Ponder emceed the meeting, which he said was in response to a series of fights at Colquitt County High School in late March and early April.

Ponder said he heard something after those fights that stuck with him: “The teachers are afraid of the children, the board is afraid of the parents, the parents are afraid of the board, and the children are afraid of nobody.”

With that sentiment in mind, Ponder and Councilwoman Lisa Clarke Hill, a school social worker at CCHS, invited three speakers to address the group: Meredith Willis, director of the Colquitt County office of the Division of Family and Children Services; Regina Dismuke, director of Hero House, Colquitt County’s Child Advocacy Center; and Sgt. Choice Barnes, the Moultrie Police Department’s gang analyst. After them, Greg Montford, the city’s director of engineering, spoke on an unrelated matter, and then the floor was opened for questions and comments. Most of those comments involved youth issues.

Willis came with one message — it’s OK to discipline your children — and set out to show parents the difference between physical discipline and physical abuse.

She started with a personal story from before she became county director. Her son was 3. She was leaving the grocery store, holding his hand in one of hers and carrying several plastic bags of groceries all in the other. Her son pulled free and ran into the parking lot, scaring her to death.

She dropped the groceries and ran after him, and when she caught him, she started spanking. When she finished, she looked up to see a woman on the sidewalk with her mouth agape, staring at her. She picked up her groceries, put them and her son in the car and went home.

When they got there, her son was still upset so he ran to his room. She was still upset too as she put away the groceries and pulled off her windbreaker. She hung the jacket across a chair, and that’s when she saw what the woman had been staring at. In big, yellow letters across the back: DFCS.

She went to her boss’s office first thing the next morning. “You might be getting a call today …” she said.

Her boss listened as she recounted what happened in the store parking lot.

“Did you leave a mark?” he asked.

“No.”

“Were you trying to teach him right from wrong?”

“Yes, I was afraid he was going to get run over.”

“Are you his mother?”

“Well, yes,” she said, thinking that might have been a trick question.

“Then you were doing what you’re supposed to do.”

Those three questions summarize DFCS’s approach to the question of physical discipline.

Abuse leaves marks. Discipline doesn’t. It doesn’t break the skin. It doesn’t leave bruises or welts.

Discipline is intended to correct behavior. The parent must be in control of themselves at all times. If you’re not in control of yourself — if you aim the belt at the buttocks and hit the child’s neck, or if you’re so angry you can’t stop when you should — then it leans toward abuse.

Parents have the responsibility to discipline their children, and they have the right to do so.

“DFCS wants you to teach your children right from wrong,” Willis said, “DFCS wants you to teach them self-respect and respect for others. And sometimes that requires discipline.”

Willis put onto a projection screen the state’s child abuse hotline number — 1-855-GA-CHILD. Anyone can make a report of child abuse to that number, it will be prioritized based on how immediate the danger seems to be, and the report will be sent to the county DFCS office, where a worker must investigate within a time limit that’s based on the priority it was given.

Because anyone can make such a report, the DFCS workers must investigate to see if the danger is real. Willis urged anyone contacted about such a report to cooperate with her office; if the parent is disciplining the child — an action intended to teach right from wrong and leaving no physical marks — they are acting within their rights.

Willis was followed by Dismuke, whose presentation was mostly about what Hero House does. The child advocacy center is the site of interviews with children who have been sexually abused, physically abused, neglected or have witnessed severe domestic violence. The interviews help to determine what actually happened and who may have committed the act, and they are video-recorded so they can be used by law enforcement to bring the culprit to justice.

Dismuke’s message to parents was to increase supervision of their children: Where are they? Who are they with? What are they posting on social media?

She urged parents to leave their children only with people they know well.

“We have cases where the children only know (their abusers) by their nicknames, and they live in the house with them,” she said.

She encouraged parents to check the state’s sex offender registry, which is available for free online at gbi.georgia.gov/georgia-sex-offender-registry. The searchable database provides the name and address of all registered offenders in the state. She said you can’t warn children about someone if you don’t know they’re a danger.

A 20-year veteran of DFCS before becoming director of Hero House, Dismuke said DFCS rules say a 13-year-old can stay by themselves, but parents need to make that decision based on what they know of the child’s maturity level. Many 13-year-olds — and some children even older — aren’t ready for that responsibility.

“When they are not supervised, their idle minds lead them into some kind of trouble,” she said.

The third presentation focused on gangs. Barnes listed 12 gangs he had identified in Colquitt County since he was hired in January.

A gang is a group of three or more people with a unifying name or symbol, that collectively engage in criminal activity, he said. Gang members have become more subtle as police officers got wise to their blatant ways of advertising their allegiance, he said.

When a youth becomes involved in a gang, Barnes said, the parents are likely to notice something is off. He loses interest in school, his grades drop, he gets rid of one kind of clothes and only wants to wear something specific, he shows disrespect to parents or teachers, or his friends change.

Barnes urged parents to be aware of changes in behavior like that and to seek help from school or law enforcement if they see it.

“What we find out, we will tell you,” he promised.

Montfort, the engineer, described progress on paving of streets and told about plans to improve two local parks — one in Northwest Moultrie and one in Southeast.  Those announcements drew some applause, but as soon as he finished the floor was opened to comments and questions, and the subject moved right back to the children and youth of the community.

About 10 people made comments, and most of them referred to the Moultrie-Colquitt County Parks and Recreation Authority, with complaints ranging from the authority’s meeting time (7:30 a.m.) to the responsiveness of the authority and its predecessor, the city’s Recreation Department, to the needs of the Northwest community.

“We have people representing Northwest Moultrie who don’t know what’s happening in Northwest Moultrie,” Steve Reynolds said.

Some of the speakers argued that the authority’s fees are too high and that taxes are being used to support the diving program, which attracts well-to-do families, and not to support programs in Northwest, one of the poorer sections of the city.

“The only ones who get to play baseball are the ones who can afford it,” Reynolds said.

No one disagreed, but other speakers took a more practical stance.

“I don’t care about the board,” Kenneth “Juicy” Wallace said. “What we gotta do to fix it?”

Ponder urged the people who spoke so passionately to meet with him in the upcoming days to work up a strategy to take to the Recreation Authority to help get more activities in Northwest Moultrie.

“We don’t want them to put in all the work to give us what they think we want,” he said. “We know what we want.”

Other speakers brought up the similar issue of after-school programs, expressing concerns about the Boys and Girls Club taking over programs that had previously been put on by the Recreation Authority. The Rec Authority’s after-school program was free, but the Boys and Girls Club charges a small membership fee.

“I’m not saying everybody should get everything free,” Jennifer Richardson said, “but $25 is a lot of money.”

A speaker who didn’t identify himself tied the expensive after-school and recreation programs back to Barnes’ presentation on gangs.

A child needs money to play sports, money to be in the Boys and Girls Club, money to do anything, the man said.

“He’s 8, 10, 12 — how’s he going to get a job?” he said. “… You’re breeding gang members.”

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