QUITMAN —The words to “Jesus Loves Me” carried through the pavilion at Gov. Jim Hogg City Park in Quitman Sunday night, as the light from candles flickered in remembrance of two children who died in late July.
Toddlers Gabriella Guerrero and Natalye Price were found dead in a Quitman apartment complex on July 24. Police ruled the girls’ deaths as homicide.
Police believe the girls were abused at some point in their young lives, and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services investigated the family for allegations of medical and physical neglect.
About 80 people gathered in the park Sunday night to pay homage to their short lives and advocate for residents to report any suspected abuse to authorities. Many of them came dressed in pink to honor the girls or in blue to recognize child abuse awareness month in April.
“It takes a whole community,” Mayor J.R. Eans said. “Let us not only take care of those children we love, but all these children in this community. They are precious resource, and we don’t want to lose them.”
In 2013, there were 66,938 children in Texas who reportedly suffered some form of child abuse or neglect, said Kelly Cole, Quitman police chief and Northeast Texas Child Advocacy Center chief operations officer.
Of those, 156 died from abuse in 2013, Cole said.
“I want you to think about that,” Cole said. “That’s 156 lives that were taken too soon — 156 of our children — our rarest commodity. (They are) what we are supposed to be building something for. They are supposed to be taking over where we leave off, but we are allowing things like this to happen.”
The majority of abused children, more than 78 percent, suffered at the hand of their parents, Cole said.
“If we do nothing else but make someone else aware … of those kinds of numbers and the sadness that stretches across our state and our nation, then (we’re) helping,” he said. “All it takes is one start. … Tonight may that be a starting place for us.”
Cole said anyone who suspects abuse should speak up by calling the Texas Department of Family and Protective Service abuse hotline at 1-800-252-5400 or reporting it online.
“We can say, ‘We are not going to tolerate this in our community,’” he said. “You don’t need to tolerate it in your community. We are going to step up, say something and take care of our kids.”
He said if each community stopped tolerating abuse, it would eventually spread from county to county to the state and from the state to the nation.
“We can do this, but we have to work together,” he said.