Child Abuse Awareness Month: Shining Star CAC serves Ogle and Lee Counties

‘Everybody can speak up for kids. Everybody can watch for signs’


DIXON — Last fiscal year, Shining Star Children’s Advocacy Center conducted 219 forensic interviews with potential victims of child abuse in Ogle and Lee counties. The nonprofit organization has been in operation for over 20 years and has worked with over 3,000 children. 

Shining Star, which is based in Dixon, works with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and law enforcement when there are issues of physical and sexual abuse of children. When there is an open case, Shining Star has its own location where children can be interviewed in a warm environment by trained staff. It also provides counseling, court advocacy, community resources and more. 

April is Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month. This month, Shining Star will be leading the way locally raising awareness with events including National Wear Blue for Child Abuse Awareness Day on April 5, a Hands Around the Courthouse event on the Old Lee County Courthouse lawn on April 19 at noon, and its yearly Crimes Against Children Conference on April 23 at the Dixon Elks Lodge at 1279 Franklin Grove Road in Dixon. 

“One of our big focuses over the past couple of years is getting out into the community more,” Shining Star Executive Director Jessica Cash said. “We've been at a lot of community events and talking to a lot of community groups just to get the word out about the work we do. Child abuse has no boundaries, no matter what county you're in or any discriminatory factors. We've been working to provide education to parents on how to talk to their kids and report if disclosures do come out.”

Cash said her organization works to raise awareness 12 months a year, but steps up efforts during the national month in April. Mayors in Ogle and Lee counties will be making proclamations in honor of the month and Shining Star during April. 

“It's everyone's job to help protect kids, not just the people employed to do it,” Cash said. “Everybody can speak up for kids. Everybody can watch for signs. We'll have people wearing blue to spread awareness about child abuse and its prevalence in our communities. Some people think it's kind of a bigger-city problem. It's not. It's everywhere. People read online stories from other places. It happens here too.”

If you suspect abuse of a child, you can report it to the DCFS hotline at 1-800-25-ABUSE. Cash said Shining Star always encourages people to also report possible abuse to local law enforcement as well due to the DCFS having certain parameters of cases they can take or not take. If it doesn’t fall into DCFS investigation parameters, local law enforcement will always investigate.

Shining Star works with 13 different local police agencies, two prosecutor’s offices and two DCFS offices. It has also started working more with Homeland Security and the FBI on online cases in recent years.

“On a daily basis, we're working with a wide network of professionals,” Cash said. “With our two counties, all of our police, prosecutors and DCFS officials work hard on these cases and are really dedicated to helping kids. I don't always hear that from other child advocacy centers. I think we're very fortunate in the team we do have and their dedication to helping kids.”

Cash said Shining Star has been seeing more online cases concerning child abuse and children going online and talking to strangers and it resulting in sexual assault or grooming. The local children’s advocacy center has also seen an uptick since COVID-19 in physical abuse of children by parents. 

“We definitely saw an uptick since COVID-19 in physical abuse with parents being more stressed with things like jobs or resources, or just being home with their kids more,” Cash said. “What would normally be punishment turned into abuse with different things. We have seen an uptick in that. We’ve also seen an uptick in sibling sexual abuse that involves kids against each other. We've been managing that and helping kids get resources for that.”

Shining Star recently saw its VOCA (Victim of Crime Act) funding cut in the amount of about $20,000 and has been trying to make that money up through fundraising. The cut did cause the organization to have to reduce one counselor position, which it hopes to add back with new grants it’s requested for the future.

When it had two counselors, Shining Star was able to provide counseling for both parents and kids. It now has to refer parents to other agencies for counseling, which Cash said makes parents less likely to follow through with the service. 

The work that those in the Shining Star office carry out for area children on a daily basis does not come without hard days, Cash said. 

“Some days are much harder than others,” Cash said. “Not only for our staff, but law enforcement and prosecutors too. We work with them all on the importance of self care and taking time to yourself. We have a peer support group where a clinician comes in and talks with us once a month about secondary trauma and things like that. We offer counseling for our staff if they need it. We give a generous amount of time off so that people aren't getting burned out. If we have exceptionally-hard cases, we want to give people time off if they need it. It's definitely something we manage on an ongoing basis.”

Shining Star has a wish list of needed items on its website at Needs include snacks and drinks for kids when they come for services, along with items that go home with kids in comfort bags such as stuffed animals, blankets, coloring books, journals and toys. 

“They're simple things that people can donate that really help us out a lot,” Cash said. “We are very fortunate that we have a lot of community support. I still feel like there's more work we could do to get our name and what we do out there. A lot of families don't know about us until they have to use us. We're trying to change that and be a resource for people even if they're not going through an abuse situation. We can show people how to talk to their kids and things like that. We're very fortunate with our board members and volunteers. The support we have in both counties is wonderful.”