By CHRIS LADD
More than 50 percent of deaf children in this country are sexually abused according to Sign Club Company Executive Director Poppy Steele. After growing up in the deaf community, Steele is looking to make a difference here in Sumner County and Middle Tennessee.
Steele began her journey with the Sign Club Co. more than five years ago. She came across a young six-year old girl she refers to as “Molly.” Steele says “Molly” was like any other ordinary girl at that age but she was deaf. She liked to eat Skittles and had blonde hair with pigtails. But Molly’s mom was a drug addict and she would sell her to men for sex in exchange for drug money. Years of abuse would go on as “Molly” didn’t have anyone tell to tell as her friends, teachers, or relatives didn’t sign.
“When I heard about the situation that Molly was in I knew there had to be a better way,” Steele said.
While more than 50 percent of deaf children in the United States are abused about 90 percent are with hearing families and 75 percent of them don’t learn to sign.
“Our mission is to eliminate the isolation that someone like Molly is in,” Steele added. “It gives her a friend and someone that she can trust and just a safety net.”
Since the Sign Club started in Sumner County more than 22 schools have participated in the program and is now being taught in three other counties. More than 1,700 children have been taught sign language over that time.
Over the last few years Steele and her staff have been working on a curriculum to expand the Sign Club movement across the state of Tennessee. They just finished their first DVD’s and books and can now teach remotely.
Steele has also worked closely with two local police departments in Sumner County. She has worked closely with the Hendersonville and Portland Police Departments in implementing training with their staff.
“Lt. Ricky Ellis in Portland has been great with helping us get started in Portland,” Steele added. “Not every child that is deaf is abused but hopefully it sets off a red flag for them to do some research.”
Steele also believes it’s important that the officers or first responders communicate with the children separate from their parents. According to Steele many times no one on the scene knows how to communicate with the children and they aren’t getting honest answers from the family.
The Sign Club Co. worked with Senator Ferrell Haile on a bill focusing on Deaf children who are abused. That bill was signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam. The law forbids parents or family members from being the interpreter for deaf children in cases of suspected abuse, domestic violence or neglect. SB594 requires qualified American Sign Language interpreters be used either in person, or by way of video remote interpreting.
“Senator Haile has been a real champion for us,” Steele said. “He helped us draft the law and hopefully we can get more communities and law enforcement agencies to get on board.”
The work that Poppy has done is far from over. She decided recently to go to law school to help find a way better way to advocate for deaf children.
You can learn more about the Sign Club Co. at https://signclubco.org.