MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, which encompasses empowering children to understand their own bodies are private and nobody should ever make them feel uncomfortable.
"Maybe they will be able to protect themselves and the abuse not occur, but certainly if something does start happening, they're more empowered to tell an adult, so they can be stopped as soon as possible," said Dr. Carol Rahter, medical director for Children's Recovery Center.
Child Abuse Prevention Month will also focus on raising awareness of the abuse that's already happening in the community.
Children's Recovery Center offices in Horry and Georgetown counties see 300 children each year who have suffered from some kind of abuse. Eighty children have been seen so far this year, compared to 77 at this time in 2015.
"That's just the kids that are disclosed and are referred," Rahter said. "There's a lot more children out there that are being abused."
Abuse cases range from sexual abuse to emotional neglect, exposure to drugs and alcohol or criminal domestic violence. Rahter said cases of exposure to pornography, IV drug abuse and criminal domestic violence have increased in recent years.
"All of those things impact a child's development and their psychiatric well being," she said.
Before the Children's Recovery Center was started more than 20 years ago, Rahter said forensic interviews had to be done in emergency rooms, or children and detectives had to go to advocacy centers in Charleston or Columbia.
Now, those services are consolidated locally, free of charge to families.
Staff members at the center need to learn what kind of abuse the child experienced and how they can best help. A forensic interviewer asks the child questions in a room that detectives, parents or guardians can monitor in another room via a video camera.
That video can play a large role if an abuse case goes to court.
"Two years later, their body and their demeanor may be totally different than when they had their forensic interview. So, it's really important for a jury to see in real time how they disclosed," Rahter said.
The center also has a specialized medical exam room. Rahter uses what's called a colposcope to look for trauma. It can magnify small details, show them on a television screen and record the footage.
Physical evidence of abuse isn't present in the majority of cases because of delays in reporting, Rahter said. Because of this, she has to explain to juries why that could be the case.
"That tissue heals extremely rapidly," she said. "It's like the inside of your cheek. When you bite your cheek and you have that little ridge there, by the next day, there's nothing there. It's completely healed."
The children are then often referred to counseling and some have those therapy sessions right inside the Children's Recovery Center, bringing the services full circle from initial interviews to eventual healing.
Rahter recommended parents teach their children about their safety zone, which is the area covered by a bathing suit, and how that zone is private.
She also asked people to report potential signs of abuse.
"When you get that weird feeling that something is not right for a child, it's usually accurate," she said. "We all need to be advocates for these children and make sure we give them the right resources and the right investigation."
Children's Recovery Center's second annual trivia night is scheduled for April 8 at 8 p.m. at St. Michael's Catholic Church. People can sign up at www.childrensrecoverycenter.org.
Anyone interested in visiting the center can attend an open house on April 28, from 4 to 6 p.m.