When Kristen Rector started work at Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee, or PCAT, 17 years ago as a home visitor, there were only three people on staff. Today, as president and CEO of the organization, a role she’s held for the past five years, she leads a team of more than 60. In honor of April being Child Abuse Prevention Month, we found it fitting to shine the spotlight on this woman whose work and leadership is impacting the lives of people today or for generations to come. It is our distinct honor to welcome Kristen Rector as this week’s FACE of Nashville.
Where are you from, and what brought you to Nashville?
I am from Knoxville originally and moved here to finish school at UT’s social work campus in Nashville. I didn’t intend to stay here, but I really started to deepen my roots and fell in love with the city. That was 18 years ago.
You are the President and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee. Tell us about PCAT and your history with the organization.
I started after I had been working in a residential facility for adolescents. I saw the impact on the kids of so many things they had experienced in life … trauma and abuse. By the time they came to us, they were really struggling. So when I moved to Nashville, I thought I really need to do something, but I didn’t know that child abuse prevention was a thing. By grace, I fell into this position. I met the previous director at a social event, and she told me what PCAT does. It was an awakening — I didn’t understand there was a way to keep kids from having those experiences that authentically worked. I said if you have a job, I’d like to work there. Two weeks later she said, “We have a job offer. Do you want to come talk about it?” I started as a home visitor and home educator and really just fell in love with it. As I was finishing grad school, I thought I can’t do anything else. This is my heart — this is what I’m drawn to. This work has such a tremendous impact on people and children and the entire future generation. What other work allows you to say that?
What are some key child abuse statistics that the general population should know?
Kids suffer more from neglect than they do from any other form of abuse, and it’s so preventable. If you think about why neglect happens and really get to the root of why parents would be in that situation and things out of their control — poverty, or being a single parent and not having a good support system, or having to work and support your family with no access to childcare … all of those things can put a family at risk for neglecting their kids. Part of that is knowledge — caring for a child is not something we’re all born knowing, and if you don’t have that growing up, it can make things that much harder.
The other thing people don’t realize is that 1 in 10 children are sexually abused before age 18, and most often, kids know their abuser — the family knows the abuser and have built a relationship with the person.
How can families protect their kids?
You really want to know someone well and know who your kids are going to be around. For my own family, we don’t do sleepovers unless we really know that family, and even then, I want to know who else is in that house. So make sure kids aren’t in one-on-one situations with an adult, and that you don’t put yourself in one-on-one situations with a child. Be aware of behaviors that perpetrators use to get to know a family well — to gain the trust in unique ways by getting close to them so they’re presented with more opportunities.
In terms of neglect, it’s everyone’s responsibility to care for kids even if they’re not yours. Reaching out to families that are struggling — that is ultimately helping to prevent abuse.
What is a surprising fact about child abuse?
That it’s completely preventable. Parents don’t wake up in the morning and think I’m feeling pretty spiteful. I’m gonna abuse my child. There are a lot of things that go into that, whether it’s lack of support or knowledge, or there may be a mental health challenge or substance abuse going on, but if we can work with them, it can be preventable.
There’s also this idea that really young children won’t remember, but it’s actually the opposite. Children before the age of 5 are developing. While they may not have a memory, [the abuse] is laid in their chemistry, and it shows up later in life. That’s so often why that cycle occurs. When we think about things that are preventable, we can change that conversation and ask, “What has happened to you that has brought you to this place, and what have you overcome?” It’s important to acknowledge so they can realize they are resilient and they can do it right with the right systems in place.
What are some of the services PCAT offers?
We function in three buckets — the biggest is the direct support we provide to families and young children. We do home visiting and education programs where we meet families in their home every week from when they’re pregnant till the child goes to kindergarten. All the families we serve come to us, so it’s voluntary. They have been impacted in their own childhood by negative parenting practices and lack of support and nurturing. They want to do better, but they need help figuring out how, and that’s where we come in — parent coaching, reparenting and working along the parent and child and helping parents understand the impact on their children’s healthy development. So much happens through nurturing relationships — interacting with your child and holding and hugging and eye contact and language are so important.
The second bucket is crisis intervention. We do shaken baby prevention in hospitals across the state. We have a 24-hour parent helpline where every parent from any county can call when they need help. We also have the 24-hour domestic violence hotline. We take calls from every county for people who are seeking safety and security for them and their children.
The third bucket is the advocacy and education bucket. Every child deserves a great childhood, and you can play a part in that. We teach adults how to protect kids from child sex abuse. We talk with adults about supporting families in their neighborhoods. No matter if you’re a relative or parent or faith leader or neighbor — that you can reach out to families and be that village. And then we advocate for good policy that supports families — systems that nurture and build and strengthen families in a positive way.
What has been the most memorable experience you’ve had working at PCAT?
There’s one woman in particular that when I started working with her, she was homeless, pregnant and alone. It seemed like she had everything in the world on her shoulders, so it was a privilege to be able to work with her and watch her work as a mom and become more stable and love her kids and go from living in her car to public housing to her own house, get married, get a job and have a second child. I still hear from her, and I get pictures from her of her kids. I think of her all the time as one of the reasons I continue to love this work.
What should someone do if they suspect a child is being abused?
We are all mandated reporters in Tennessee. If you suspect a child is in danger, you’re bound to report that. Our main goal is to keep families from getting to that point.
If you weren’t doing your current work, what career would you love to pursue?
I always joke that if I wasn’t doing this, I would be marking trails in some forest somewhere. I’d be the guy who hammers markers into the ground.
Favorite place to grab a bite in Nashville?
Always gonna be Husk. I’m all about some grits!
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
My mom’s mantra was, “Worry a little, pray a lot.” You’re never alone in your battle. Surround yourself with people who will love you through anything.
What are three things you can’t live without, aside from faith, family and friends?
- Hope. You’ve got to look really hard for it sometimes, but it always seems to present itself when you need it most.
- Coffee and wine. They just make life better.
- Brains in your head and feet in your shoes (from Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go)
Thank you, Kristen, for your dedication to Tennessee’s children and families, and thank you to Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography for the beautiful photos of Kristen at PCAT’s offices. Make plans to attend the 10th Annual Pinwheel Festival at Sevier Park on April 13 in honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month. The free family-friendly activity takes place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Learn more at pcat.org.
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