Home Local News Balloons released in Richmond County to remember child abuse victims

Balloons released in Richmond County to remember child abuse victims

A crowd of law enforcement officers, social workers and foster parents walk from the Richmond County Department of Social Services to Harrington Square on Tuesday to recognize April as Child Abuse Prevention Month.
William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ROCKINGHAM — As investigators with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, Jay and Terri Childers have seen their share of child abuse cases.

They were two among a crowd of law enforcement officers, social workers and foster parents who walked from the Richmond County Department of Social Services to Harrington Square on Tuesday to recognize April as Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month.

The Richmond County Board of Commissioners issued a proclamation earlier this month, which was read aloud by Ronald Tillman, who is a member of the school board and the Health and Human Services Advisory Board. 

Other participants from the law side included Sheriff James E. Clemmons Jr., Rockingham Police Chief Billy Kelly and Detective Lt. George Gillenwater, and assistant district attorneys Dawn Layton and Michael Van Buren.

Prior to the march down East Washington Street, those involved were handed blue balloons and pinwheels, the latter of which has been the national symbol for child abuse prevention since 2008 because it “connotes whimsy and childlike notions” and a reminder “of the great childhoods we want for all children,” according to Prevent Child Abuse America.

Jay Childers said the sheriff’s office receives a lot of reports and some turn out to be unfounded.

Most of the cases come from DSS, unless a child is taken to a hospital with injuries, he added.

Tuesday night, there were at least four men in the Richmond County Jail on physical or sexual abuse charges involving children.

Social Services Director Robby Hall said his “real job is not to just talk about the need for the protection of children, but how it is possible to support one another so that all children can receive the safe and loving care that the vast majority of families provide to children every day.”

“This is not a DSS task, but a community responsibility to protect all our children,” he added.

According to Hall, DSS investigated an average of 76.5 reports of child abuse, neglect and dependency per month in the 2018-19 fiscal year, totaling around 918 cases. During the same time period, an average of 22 children were in foster care or DSS custody each month.

From August 2017 to August 2018, Hall said there were 145 reports of substance-affected infants, he added.

“Substance misuse and mental health issues are the primary characteristics involved in the majority of child welfare cases,” he said, “along with social issues such as unemployment, housing, domestic violence and lack of family supports.”

Bunny Critcher, program director for Child Protective Services, welcomed all those who came out, saying “without those standing around, our situation would be a lot worse.”

The invocation and benediction were given by the Rev. Robert Richardson and the Rev. Quintin Covington, respectively, both of whom have been foster parents for years.

Covington was also one of the guest speakers.

He and his wife have served as foster parents in Scotland and Richmond counties for the past 40 years, taking 57 children into their home.


Before they got started in what he calls the foster ministry, Covington said his wife asked, “Why can’t we cut a (hole) in our door, like a pet door, and we could … make it known that if you don’t want your child … they could bring that child to us, slip it through that door and we would take care of their child?”

In 2001, North Carolina passed a “Safe Haven” law, which allows parents to surrender a newborn up to seven days old to a responsible adult without having to give their names, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Safe surrender contacts include a health-care provider, law enforcement officer, social services worker, emergency medical personnel or a trusted adult who understands the best interests of the child.

“Some have said to us, ‘I cannot understand how anyone could harm a child,’” Covington said. “If you could understand that, then that’s the problem … if we ever come to a point where we understand how someone could abuse a child — break their bones, burn them with cigarettes, throw them up against a wall and even cause their death — then there’s something wrong with us.

“May we never come to a point where we can understand that.” 

The Covington’s hadn’t been licensed foster parents long when they got a call from DSS workers in Scotland County about two girls, a 2-year-old and 7-month old, both of whom had severe cigarette burns.

He said it took the oldest months for her to warm up to him as a male figure.

“She was shy, she was fearful,” he said. “She had tremendous trust issues.”

Today, both of them are married with children of their own and are successful, according to Covington.

Later, he said, they took in a trio of siblings who had been found rummaging through the garbage trying to find something to eat — one of them wearing nothing but his underwear, cowboy boots with no socks and a tank top in mid-winter.

When they moved to Richmond County in 2017, Covington said they received a call about a 2-month-old in the hospital with broken bones— including both legs — fractured ribs and a fractured skull.

Covington said it looked “as if someone had thrown him against the wall.” 

They went to the hospital to bond with him before he was released and convinced the doctor to remove the feeding tube so they could feed him with a bottle.

The boy is now “growing and thriving,” Covington said.


Van Buren, who prosecutes abuse and neglect cases, spoke about the costs those cases have on a community.

Not only is there the financial burden on the government, from investigations by DSS and law enforcement to prosecution, there are other costs that can plague a community over the years.

Van Buren added that research shows that many abused children: suffer from social and emotional problems; engage in self-harming behavior; and will have learning disorders and difficulty in school including poor attendance and misconduct.

“What I’ve learned as an assistant district attorney … many of those cases that involve drug crimes, property crimes are (those) who were abused as children,” he said, “children who were abused and didn’t get the support that they needed to heal appropriately.

“So what they did, often times, is self-medicate to try to heal, because we as a society failed them,” he said. “And self-medication leads to addiction, which often leads to other crimes, such as theft crimes, to try and support that addiction.”


Van Buren then described several principles he’s developed for a community to combat such issues — principles for a child-value community.

“The first principle is to try and change the culture of our community to make known that we will not tolerate the harming of children … to make clear that we will punish those who harm children,” he said.

The other principles include:

  • Making it known that “children are our greatest assets … to make clear that we know the true measure of a community is how we treat our children.”
  • “To make clear, children are the future, and the values that we demonstrate to them today will be the values that they display tomorrow.”
  • “…we will effectively respond to the needs of our children; and we can do that by making sure the agencies that are in charge of protecting children … will put aside their differences and work together for the common good of children.”
  • Make resources available “to help parents, gaurdinans and caretakerers raise children in a healthy, safe environment.”

“Once we adopt those principles,” Van Buren said, “we can start to turn the tide of child abuse.”

Following the remarks, participants read the child abuse statistics that were attached to the balloons before releasing them above the water fountain.


Terri Childers, who spent 15 years processing crime scenes and investigating special victims cases, said one of the worst child abuse cases in her career resulted in the death of a 4-year-old girl.

Jay Childers and Layton both agreed.

Her granddaughter was about the same age at the time and she said, “It really hit home.”

On the morning of Sept. 28, 2012, Jay Childers responded to a call on Green Lake Road to find the small Reba Ryan in an ambulance with heavy bruising on her face and body.

“That was rough,” he said.

She had been beaten by her mother’s boyfriend, Julius Lilly, who told investigators that he had hit the child several times with a belt.

She later died from her injuries.

During Lilly’s plea arrangement and sentencing hearing in 2017, Layton, who prosecuted the case, told the court that an autopsy revealed Reba had a lacerated liver and died from blunt-force trauma to the head and abdomen.

Layton also said it was believed that Lilly used his hands and feet in the assault, in addition to the belt.

Lilly, who had previous assault convictions in Montgomery and Randolph counties, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and child abuse. He was sentenced to more than 21 years on the murder charge, followed by up to five years and two months on the abuse charge.

He also was ordered by the judge to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

Records with the N.C. Department of Public Safety Division of Adult Correction show Lilly is projected to be released in August of 2037.

With Terri Childers soon to retire, she and Jay have decided to become foster parents and are currently waiting for their license to come through.

“We’ve been through so much, we just wanted to help,” she said. “It’s such a good cause. We just feel like giving a child a chance after everything we’ve seen.”




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Managing Editor William R. Toler is an award-winning writer and photographer with experience in print, television and online media.