More than 150 blue and silver pinwheels now stand outside the Veterans Memorial Building in Solvang, each one symbolizing five children who were abused in the Lompoc and Solvang area in 2020.
Members of the North County Rape Crisis and Child Protection Center alongside Solvang City Council officials planted 166 pinwheels Wednesday morning, drawing the attention of drivers who honked their horns in support while commuting through Solvang’s busy streets.
The pinwheels represent the 831 child abuse referrals that were investigated last year in the Lompoc and Solvang area. Their spinning flaps evoke memories of childhood innocence, something that is taken from many kids as a result of abuse.
“(When I see a pinwheel) I think about the innocence of my youth, I think about (feeling) carefree, I think about the beach, I think about just enjoying life,” Ann McCary, executive director of the center, told the News-Press. “Child abuse is dark, and the people who aren’t involved in (our work) don’t necessarily acknowledge that it exists. And (the pinwheels) are a symbol that yes, it does exist.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, reported instances of child abuse in Lompoc and Solvang dropped from 1,137 referrals in 2019 to 831 in 2020. Though this looks like a positive change, officials say the drop likely stems from a lack of in-person learning for the past year, not a true decrease in cases of child abuse.
School teachers are mandated reporters, meaning they are required to report suspected instances of child abuse. With a year of online learning due to the pandemic, officials suspect many children faced abuse at home without an outlet for help.
“We usually see an uptick in reports right before the summer and right after the kids come back to school,” Barbara Finch, children and adult network director for the county’s Department of Social Services, told the News-Press. “And since they weren’t in school and weren’t going to as many doctor’s visits, the reports went down. But the reports that were coming in were much more severe and disturbing.”
She added, “We know there have been kids who are stuck at home in unsafe situations … We’re not seeing those kids until they’re back in school.”
Ms. McCarty echoed this sentiment, calling the drop in cases “disturbing.” She said her organization is anticipating an uptick in child abuse reports as more and more children return to in-person learning.
“One of the things I fear is that people will see 831 and (think) ‘Oh that’s not so bad, it’s gone down from the year before,’ but no it hasn’t,” Ms. McCarty said. “I don’t want people to think it’s getting better because it’s not. We have the power to make it better, and that power rests within the entire community.”
From Ms. McCarty’s perspective, it is better for community members to report suspected instances of child abuse and find that they are wrong rather than never report it at all.
Additional pinwheel plantings took place Wednesday in Lompoc, Santa Maria and Guadelupe in collaboration with volunteers from First 5 Santa Barbara County, CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), and the North County Rape Crisis and Child Protection Center.