April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Each year, approximately 6 million American children become victims of child abuse. According to the child abuse agency Child Help, a report of child abuse is made in the United States every 10 seconds, and an average of four to seven children die each day. Thousands of other children survive abuse, only to live with scars that never heal.
While the numbers speak volumes, these children are more than statistics. They represent the faces and personalities of real people, little boys and girls with hopes, dreams and stories to tell.
When severe child abuse makes the news, much of the focus is on the offender. This was the case recently in Haywood County where Michael Swayngim, 27, received a life sentence after pleading guilty to the beating death of his 4-year-old son, Jake Russell. (read Michael Swayngim story here)
Stories about the guilty too often overshadow tales of the innocent lives that are taken too soon. In honor of National Child Abuse Prevention month, Tamara Swayngim, is reflecting on the short life of her young nephew, Jake – a bright-eyed, blonde-haired Florida Gators fan who loved to swim and catch frogs. She wants people to know how quickly life can change.
“I think the community needs to have more knowledge about the signs of child abuse, and should never be afraid to make a report if you even suspect a child is being mistreated,” said Swayngim. “Make an anonymous report that you are concerned for whatever reason it may be.”
At four years old, Jake Russell stood on the edge of his life. His aunt, Tamara, remembers him as a lovable little boy with a creative imagination.
“He was quiet until you could sit down and have a conversation with him, and then you would hear some good stories,” she said. “I say stories like the time he ‘rode a shark’ or when he ‘flew out of a tree.’”
Swayngim has seven nieces and nephews, along with two children of her own.
“All the cousins wanted to be (Jake’s) best friend,” she said.
Jake moved away from the area for two years, and Swayngim and the kids didn’t get to see him much during that time. They saw him again for the first time in May 2012 – three months before he died.
The day Jake came back to Waynesville is a moment she will always remember – not knowing at the time it would come to an abrupt, tragic end a short time later.
“He had on what turned out to be his most favorite shirt ever, a football tank top, blue-jean shorts and sandals,” she said. “He was carrying a little truck and he had a little hair brush in his pocket he kept getting out to brush his little blonde hair. I still have this hairbrush. He had left it with (my daughter) Kendall to borrow.”
As a childcare worker for eight years, Swayngim has been around a lot of children. Jake stood out, she said.
He loved pizza for breakfast and chocolate. He was well behaved, said Swayngim. He was always polite and listened.
“Jake was amazing; always followed directions. He loved being outdoors, where he would find all sorts of things,” she said. “His favorite to find was frogs. With that, Jake loved a lot of things. He was a loving, and loveable child. He loved his mother, hats, the Florida Gators, pickles, climbing trees, swimming and cars.”
Swayngim regrets that she didn’t get to spend more time with Jake, but cherishes those final months with him. She keeps Jake’s favorite stuffed dolphin on the mantle with his ashes. She urges community members to know the signs and symptoms of child abuse, and to never hesitate to make a report when abuse is suspected. It could be a matter of life and death.
“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Swayngim.
“Jake is now just another memory we have to remind us of what a precious thing we lost in such a horrible, forever life-changing way,” she continued. “The hardest part is my daughter, who at the time was two, decided that Jake was a star at nighttime. So a lot of nights her and my son search for the smallest and brightest star and talk to Jake.”