By srianthi perera
Physical and sexual abuse of children are all too common in Gilbert and beyond.
Just ask Terri Arenas.
She worked as a detective for the Gilbert Police Department for 25 years — 15 of them investigating in the Child/Sex Crimes Division. Arenas also served on the Arizona Child Abduction Response Team, a statewide missing-child response outfit, where she worked directly with victimized children and their families.
“It happens every day. I don’t think that abuse only really happens with low-income families or with underprivileged kids. I think it happens everywhere, across the spectrum,” she said.
After retiring last year, Arenas began working to strengthen her nonprofit, Giving Trunk Foundation, which she established in 2016 from her Gilbert home.
Giving Trunk Foundation helps raise funds for organizations that provide confidential care, support and advocacy for child victims of abuse; allowing them to help heal, educate and empower survivors. Chief among the help is financial assistance to counseling.
“We also help to fulfill items family advocacy centers have on their respective wish lists, such as toiletries, clothing, shoes, and meet any immediate needs of victims and their families,” Arenas said.
The charity has been instrumental in the purchase of medical equipment for a new forensic medical program; helped fund a playground cover for a family advocacy center, among many achievements.
“Our wish is to have the financial means to continue sponsoring children for counseling and to support organizations that offer confidential care and support to child victims of abuse,” Arenas said.
The foundation’s three-member board includes Arenas; her husband, Ramon Arenas, a deputy chief in the Gilbert Fire Department; and communications specialist Mia Belk.
The charity’s supporters include Foothills Women’s Club, Big O Tires, AC Hotel Phoenix Biltmore and AC Hotel Tempe by Marriott, East Valley Firefighter Charities, Karsten Pest Technologies, as well as private individuals.
To raise funds and awareness, the nonprofit last year organized “Lace Up to End Child Abuse,” a 5k run/walk in Gilbert that drew 200 participants.
Arenas, an Arizona native, grew up in Phoenix and has been in Gilbert since 1993. She and Ramon have five adult children and 10 grandchildren.
Arenas, who herself was abducted by a stranger when she was a child, said she has a passion for this work, which led her from an investigative role to that of an advocate.
It’s not a job or role that everybody can readily undertake.
“I have had numerous children share the most horrific details of their abuse with me. I know firsthand that their physical wounds heal, but the psychological and emotional trauma they experienced can last a lifetime, requiring ongoing therapy and support,” she said.
“I want to be a part of something bigger than myself. Child abuse is everyone’s business,” she added. “At Giving Trunk Foundation, we believe every child deserves the support he or she needs to succeed. If we can help one child overcome their adversities, then our hearts are full.”
As a detective, Arenas came across dozens of abuse cases, some very graphic, emotional and heart-rending. The kids ranged in age from very young to teenagers, and also to adult victims.
She has seen kids who have been seriously physically abused by parents or boyfriends to where they are in the hospital with head fractures.
Sometimes parents don’t have a good sexual relationship, and so they turn to their own children or their adopted children, she said.
“Working these types of investigations for 15 years, I’ve seen a lot and I’ve heard a lot,” she said.
At any given time, each of the six detectives in Gilbert was working on about 12 cases, Arenas said.
She noticed that after school holidays, cases ramped up, when teachers reported things they’d seen or things they’d heard. Then, a lot of cases came when children confided in their friends who told their parents and they called the police.
The main thing is for them to confide in somebody to get help, somebody that they trust.
“There were enough cases to keep all of us busy. You never know how long it’s going to take to finish a case. Some close pretty quickly, and some have to be worked on for months,” she added.
Community resources to help abused children are many, but young people may not be aware of them.
Child hotlines are available, and talking to an adult, such as a teacher, is also a good way to report the problem.
In the East Valley, Family Advocacy Centers are available in Chandler and Mesa, where an agency team of multi-disciplinary professionals work together to minimize trauma to victims.
How can the community help?
“Be more aware and talk about it. Nobody wants to talk about this issue. It’s a very sensitive topic to a lot of people and it makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable,” Arenas said. “People need to know that this is a big issue and that it happens, even in Gilbert.”