Starting Friday, Missoula will be covered in 10,000 blue pinwheels.

They're part of Go Blue Missoula, a monthlong event for Pinwheels for Prevention. It's an effort geared toward raising awareness and pushing for prevention of child abuse. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

At noon Friday, the public is invited to the Missoula County Courthouse lawn to rally behind the cause. Information on child abuse, prevention, the month's activities and what you can do to help will be presented. Attendees will hear from Mayor John Engen, University of Montana School of Social Work assistant professor Bart Klika, District Judge Leslie Halligan and The Parenting Place Executive Director Teresa Nygaard.

"Prevention means stopping something before it starts, which I think in our language in society anymore, we lump that in with intervention," Nygaard said. "We see a lot of folks that are doing intervention work once things have already spiraled to a point where they're having trouble and they're having a lot of issues and maybe even have had referrals to programs or Department of Human Services or something."

The Parenting Place is primarily a prevention organization, teaching parents what to do to create a healthy and safe environment for their children.

"It's so nationalized that people in the local sense don't get on board," Go Blue Missoula coordinator and outreach chair Gina Hegg said of the national campaign. "So we wanted to bring it home and know that Go Blue Missoula is a community that supports these efforts."

***

Something clicked recently for one of the fathers working with Parenting Place.

In the past, he struggled with addiction. He has two young children.

"Just a couple of days ago he called and said his ex was picking up the kids and she was going to be indicted for drug charges and he said, 'It's just not safe for the kids to go there,' " Nygaard said.

He told the staff that he needed a new parenting plan.

"It's like, 'Ahh, he gets it!' He's on board with safety for the kids," she said. "This is the kind of work that can happen, over a couple years. These things don't happen overnight."

He's one of about 75 parents in Parenting Place's home-visit program in a year (staff visiting the home, working one-on-one with parents). Parenting Place will also provide 13- to 15-week parenting classes to about 200 parents this year, at their office, the prerelease center and the jail.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 3.2 million children received an investigation or alternative response nationwide in 2014 – of which 10,180 were in Montana.

The most common type of maltreatment in Montana in 2014 was neglect (92 percent). Physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological maltreatment and medical neglect were also reported.

Of the 902 perpetrators reported in Montana in 2014, 89 percent were a parent.

That year, an estimated 1,580 children died of abuse and neglect nationwide.

***

The pinwheels represent a multi-pronged approach to prevention.

"We're reframing, because in the old days those (severe child abuse) cases would be glamorized to such an extent that that is what people would identify as abuse and neglect, and they would not see anything else before that until a child was either so badly hurt or killed," Nygaard said. "Everything else seemed OK to a certain extent."

The focus has shifted from seeing that child abuse exists to doing something about it by strengthening families, "where we can say it's totally normal for people to take a parenting class when they have a baby."

"I think No. 1, as a community, we need to take a positive approach on dealing with it," Hegg said. "Instead of saying you're a bad person or pointing fingers at people, there's a positive direction in how you shift a norm, and you shift a norm of how you deal with prevention through educating yourself, becoming aware that there's a problem."

Nygaard used to joke with former Watson Children's Center Executive Director Fran Albrecht that she was trying to put her out of business.

"We don't want children to have to go to a shelter environment ... into foster care," Nygaard said. "We want kids to remain in their families as long as it's healthy and safe ... and help families understand what those two things look like."

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Reporter for the Missoulian