By Kathy Day
Growing up, Charles Wilson didn’t know that child abuse existed.
But as a college student he saw a commercial with a nursery rhyme playing in the background and a child crawling toward the camera. The only words were “Who would hurt a little child?”
That was the moment when he knew what he wanted to do with his life, Wilson said.
He said he had always wanted “to do something relevant” and planned to be a teacher. His introduction to what some children must endure came when he was student teaching at an inner city school where he said he was first “confronted with violence and abuse.”
But when he saw that commercial as a college senior he went straight to the library on campus to find out who was trying to stop the abuse. That began a learning curve that now has him leading the Chadwick Center for Children & Families at Rady Children’s Hospital and heading up the California Evidence Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare.
“What drew me in was the unfairness,” Wilson said. “I wanted to stop their pain.”
After graduating from the University of Miami, he applied for a job as a child protective services worker. Hired to work in a rural county southeast of Tampa, “within weeks I realized how woefully unequipped I was and the system was,” he said.
With that knowledge he went on to graduate school at the University of Tennessee where his focus was on systems change. Two years later he was working in the Memphis children’s protective services department and helped its administration.
Soon he was appointed as the state’s director of child welfare services – a post he held for 14 years, “surviving” several governors.
“I grew weary of politics,” he said. “I wanted a place that did outstanding clinical work and that aspired to change the world.”
Few places, he added, do both. One of those is the National Children’s Advocacy Center in Huntsville, Ala., where he went after leaving the state post. The other was the Center for Child Protection at what is now Rady Children’s Hospital. In 2004 the Center was renamed after its founder, Dr. David Chadwick, and today the Center is internationally known as the Chadwick Center for Children and Families.
The challenges of his job are many. There’s the obvious one of finding philanthropic support and funding, particularly with the recent problems in the economy that forced him to cut his staff by about half and led to the closure of three of the six offices — even though the number of cases they were handling continued to rise.
Even greater, though, is providing therapy for children who “have been abused or witnessed horrific violence like murder and rape,” Wilson said.
The center’s stated vision is “to create a world where children and families are healthy and free from abuse and neglect” through services aimed at “healing, intervention and family support.”
A recent participant in a Keep Kids Safe forum at Cathedral Catholic High School, Wilson said that while stranger abduction is a very serious concern, it still a tiny percentage of all the cases compared to abuse by people known to the child.