After prosecuting crimes committed against women and children for nearly three decades, Karen Hayter now works to prevent such crimes from occurring in the first place.
“We teach children how to be safe and when to ask for help,” says Hayter, executive director of the Kalamazoo County Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Council (Kalamazoo CAN) and a former Kalamazoo County assistant prosecutor. “We teach parents how to spot the danger signs. We also provide specialized training for teachers, nurses and police so they can identify child abuse and report it quickly.”
Kalamazoo CAN is not a social work or governmental agency, but a nonprofit resource and teaching agency focused on preventing child abuse in the county. It was started as a project of the Junior League of Kalamazoo in 1976 and today works closely with a wide range of public and private organizations to provide prevention programs. The organization consists of Hayter, program educator Cathy Hosner and more than 500 volunteers who provide about 40 hours a week working on education and fundraising projects, programs and campaigns.
"Child abuse is 100 percent preventable if people are properly educated and adhere to what they learn,” Hayter says. “That’s what we do at Kalamazoo CAN.”
According to the Kalamazoo CAN website, child abuse is “a large and growing problem in Kalamazoo County,” with an average of 13 new cases of child abuse and neglect reported each day.
Hayter says there are generally more reports of child neglect than of abuse. Neglect occurs when a child’s health is not adequately taken care of. For example, children may not be dressed appropriately for the weather or may not receive adequate medical and dental care. They may live in unsafe conditions in their neighborhoods or be on the streets unsupervised at night.
“This is not about poverty,” Hayter says. “Child abuse and neglect occur at all income levels. All parents love their children, but some struggle with knowing and learning essential parenting skills.”
One issue Kalamazoo CAN has tackled is infant death related to unsafe sleeping environments. Crib death, also known as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), is the sudden unexplained death of a child less than 1 year old. Michigan has 120 to 150 crib deaths per year. Consequently, Kalamazoo CAN has initiated the Safe Sleep Program, which teaches parents and caregivers that the safest sleeping environment for an infant is on its back in a crib, with no bumper pads or toys.
Another service the organization provides is training. In August, Kalamazoo CAN conducted a Mandatory Reporter Training class for 80 Head Start teachers so they could learn to identify, report and respond to suspected abuse in individual children. Sometimes a child reports the abuse to a teacher, and sometimes a teacher notices signs of abuse.
Kalamazoo CAN promotes itself and its services by attending and distributing information at community events, including information on the stages of child development and tips on parenting, handling toilet accidents, holding a baby and dealing with bullying.
“People find out about us and ask for our help,” Hayter says.
Before taking the helm of Kalamazoo CAN in 2012, Hayter was an assistant prosecuting attorney for Kalamazoo County for 26 years. She was a Neighborhood Prosecutor with Kalamazoo County from 1998 to 2003, working with police in various neighborhoods to prevent crime. She also worked with the Family Court Division and represented the Department of Human Services when cases were brought to court.
“I understand the law, and I know the case workers,” says Hayter, who has a law degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School. “In the Prosecutor’s Office, I followed a specific protocol with each and every case. At Kalamazoo CAN, however, there is a lot more flexibility. I work with a 16-member board of directors who come from all walks of life and who have different views. We put our heads together to decide how to achieve our mission.”
Hayter also teaches an Introduction to Criminal Justice course for Western Michigan University’s Department of Sociology and has taught at Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Police Academy and in the paralegal program at Davenport University. Working with Kalamazoo CAN is a natural extension of her educational work.
“I love my job,” Hayter says. “It’s all about teaching, which I have done in various ways throughout my career.”