Editor’s note: In 1981, April was declared Child Abuse Awareness month, then in 1983 April was declared National Child Abuse Prevention month and in 1989 the color blue was declared the Child Abuse Awareness ribbon color. So, Mississippi Catholic is “going blue” to raise public awareness of child abuse and to promote prevention efforts.
By Joanna Puddister King and Berta Mexidor
CLEVELAND – Jenifer Jenkins has always had a special place in her heart for helping others. Coming from back to her hometown of Cleveland after a stint in Oregon as a disaster coordinator for the Red Cross, preparing operating procedures for emergencies such as hurricanes, nuclear accidents and terrorist attacks and earning a degree in social work, Jenkins was a natural fit for the Safe Environment Coordinator position for the Diocese of Jackson when the position came open last year.
Jenkins took the place of long-time diocese employee, Vickie Carollo, who spent 17 years developing the Protection of Children program for the diocese before her retirement in 2021. But Jenkins was no stranger to the program as she had acted as a site administrator for the program at Our Lady of Victories Cleveland, in addition to many other duties at the Delta parish before taking over for Carollo last summer.
“I knew that this would be something that I would love to do,” said Jenkins. “My degree is in social work and has always held a special place in my heart.”
Over the past year, Jenkins has been working out of her home parish of Our Lady of Victories, as the Safe Environment Coordinator, and working to make sure that all sites in the diocese are compliant with the Charter for the Protection of Children and that employees are up to date with the Virtus, a program and service of The National Catholic Risk Retention Group.
Virtus is an awareness training program that is designed to educate adults on how to recognize the warning signs of child sexual abuse and what to do when they suspect a child is being victimized.
As a part of the ongoing efforts for the diocese’s Protection of Children program, all volunteers and employees complete monthly training bulletins, in addition to an initial training session, and completing a background check.
“With Virtus everybody can stay up-to-date on the latest research and information on fostering safe environments. Things are always changing, and we want to stay on top of things to keep our children and vulnerable adults safe,” said Jenkins.
The diocese also uses Virtus for safety training geared to children, that includes material that is developmentally appropriate for each age group and includes content and activities that reinforce the message. Some of the topics include what to do and how to react when someone’s touch is confusing, scary, or makes the child feel uncomfortable; learning about personal boundaries and giving the self-assurance needed to speak up; learning about who to tell when something or someone makes them feel uncomfortable or confused; and how to recognize grooming by an abuser.
Additionally, the Protection of Children program at the diocese goes through an onsite audit process every three years, of which the diocese has been in compliance with every year. The next onsite audit is set for July of this year and Jenkins is ready, saying she is “crossing all the ‘t’s’ and dotting the ‘i’s.'”
“Some of our sites got behind on training bulletins from Virtus during COVID since there were little to no activities for quite a while,” said Jenkins.
In addition to the audit, Jenkins says she is also working on updating vulnerable adult training and will soon implement a system in schools to identify volunteers more easily, making sure each are Virtus compliant.
Jenkins says, “I am helping to bring more awareness of sexual abuse and abuse of vulnerable adults to all. I continue to look forward to meeting new people across the diocese and protecting all of God’s children.”