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Defending the defenseless; Annual march calls attention to plight of abused children

Every child deserves to feel safe and to be safe.

That was the message at a march and rally Friday afternoon downtown in observance of National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April.

"Stop child abuse. Yes we can," the group of 200 chanted while marching from Lafayette Square to the steps of City Hall.

This was the 16th annual march, and on the minds of many was the brutal beating death of 10-year-old Abdifatah Mohamud April 17 by his stepfather in the basement of the family's Guilford Street home.

"In the wake of the recent horrific child-abuse death, we want to say that the most effective ways to reduce the risk that children will be harmed are to support, teach and coach their parents, caregivers and community helpers ," said Deborah Merrifield, chairwoman of WE CAN -- WNY Ending Child Abuse & Neglect. It formerly was known as the citizens Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Youngsters from Head Start and students from the South Park High School Marching Band were joined by health, education and law enforcement officials, human service professionals and neighbors.

One of the guest speakers at the City Hall rally was Kearstyn Schultz, a 12-year-old student at Hamburg Middle School and one of two winners of a Buffalo News essay contest on the "Declaration Rights of Children."

The competition was open to children ages 10 to 12 and 13 to 15 from across the region. Participants expressed their hopes and dreams for children in today's world.

Kearstyn's winning composition outlined the basic needs of children, "like food, water, education and medical care."

"I thought of other kids, kids who live in fear," Kearstyn said when asked about the motivation for her essay, which she read to the audience.

The other winner was Abrar Abdelfadeel, a Sweet Home High School student who did not make it to the event.

Other speakers at the rally included Mayor Byron W. Brown, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and Marilyn Ballard, education supervisor at Child Care Resource Network.

The goal of the event was to raise public awareness that everyone can play a part in strengthening families and preventing child abuse and neglect, organizers said.

"We do this because the voice of a community is louder than the voice of a child," Merrifield said.

Polla Milligan, a grant writer for the Food Bank of Western New York, was thinking of 10-year-old Abdifatah as she held up a sign in his memory during the rally.

"Rest in peace Little One," it read.

Abdifatah's stepfather, Ali Mohamed Mohamud, admitted to homicide investigators he tied up the boy's hands, stuck a sock in his mouth, duct-taped it shut and struck him with a baker's rolling pin. An autopsy found the boy had been hit 70 times.

Mohamud has been charged with second-degree murder.

The boy had called 911 two times on the same day in April 2011 to report his stepfather was harming him. Police immediately called Erie County Child Protective Services.

Two months later, CPS officials also investigated after the boy showed up severely bruised at school with his parents, who complained another student attacked him. Child protection workers never saw fit to remove him from the family's home.

"I was so blown away by what happened to [Abdifatah]," Milligan said. "I had to do something."