Four hundred balloons flew over the skies of Hinesville on Monday afternoon, but they did not symbolize a joyous occasion.
The balloons were released just after 4 p.m. during an a capella rendition of “Amazing Grace” to bring attention to Child Abuse Awareness Month, which is recognized in April.
Liberty County Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau CEO Leah Poole coordinated the event in conjunction with the city of Hinesville after the story of toddler Andraia Boles tugged at her heart strings.
Andraia, 3 years old, died Feb. 27 in her Hinesville home. Child abuse is suspected to be the cause of her death.
The girl’s father, Torres Boles, faces charges of murder and cruelty to children. Her mother, Candice Boles, was due to appear in court Monday for a bond hearing, but the hearing was delayed due to an attorney conflict. She is charged with being party to the crime of felony murder and first-degree cruelty to children.
The toddler’s story is a tragic one, but it also shines light on other instances of abuse.
In fiscal-year 2012, there were 110 substantiated cases of abuse or neglect in Liberty County, while there were 13 Long County cases in the same time, according to Liberty/Long County Division of Family and Children Services Director Shawn Brown.
Brown, two DFCS board members and two staff members attended the event.
“We want to focus our message this year on bringing attention to the role that everybody plays in the community, so an event like this plays to getting the community’s attention,” Brown said. “We all have a role in promoting the awareness of things that we can do to prevent abuse.”
The Georgia Department of Human Services, Division of Family and Children Services receives a report every 15 minutes about a child being abused, he added.
“A child is a precious gift to be loved, nurtured and treasured. It is our community’s responsibility to work together to ensure that today’s children are growing up to be tomorrow’s healthy, productive adults,” he said.
DFCS board member John Henderson was among the representatives.
“It’s terrible that it takes a tragedy to get people really thinking,” Henderson said. “Living in this little community, it’s hard to think something like this could happen.”
That’s why Poole said the event is an important one. She spoke in a brief ceremony before the Enviro-Tech biodegradable balloons were released.
“I know it’s not a very happy thing to talk about, but it’s something that we need to talk about,” Poole said. “Every year, 3.3 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States, involving nearly
6 million children. The United States has the worst record in the industrialized nations, losing five children every day due to child-abuse-related deaths.”
In addition, Poole said 80 percent of children who die from abuse are younger than 4, and about 30 percent of abused and neglected children later will abuse and neglect their own children.
In 2008, the estimated cost of abuse and neglect in this country was $124 billion.
After Poole spoke, high-school student Leah Hayes sang a capella before handing over the microphone to her father, Pastor Richard D. Hayes.
“We realize the unfortunate, tragic accident that took place not long ago concerning Miss Boles, and even now, Lord God, we ask that you will just bless this community, that as we come together, we stand now and acknowledge that we are able to do something more in this situation …,” Hayes said. “We stand now to let this community know that we are standing on the side of our children.”
Hinesville technology employee Vernetha Ekeyi sang “Amazing Grace,” as the balloons were released. Several volunteers, including city employees, chamber staff and Sistaz and Soljaz with Vizonz club members joined in freeing the balloons.
“I read the story. I was very saddened and, truthfully, I was very angry. Because they’re innocent,” Ekeyi said. “She’s 3 years old — she just got here. She didn’t have a chance to live or anything. And it’s our responsibility as parents to see after them, to take care of them, to make sure that they’re OK.”
Several people expressed opposition to the balloon release on Facebook, citing environmental concerns. Poole said she consulted with Keep Liberty Beautiful prior to the event and they chose a biodegradable brand of balloon.
To report child abuse and/or neglect during the day, contact Liberty/Long DFCS at 876-5174. To make a report of child abuse between 5 p.m. and 8:30 a.m. or during weekends and holidays, call 1-855-GACHILD (1-855-422-4453).
If a child is in immediate danger, call 911.