April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and you may have seen San Antonio ChildSafe’s awareness, intervention, and prevention campaign around the city during the past month that involves placing 5,846 Cardboard Kids in libraries, doctors’ waiting rooms, grocery stores, coffee shops, and playgrounds. Sadly, each Cardboard Kid represents a child who has been the victim of abuse or neglect.
Few things outrage people more than learning of a child’s victimization. Stories of child abuse are frequently followed with an outcry for harsh punishment for the perpetrator and an outpouring of sympathy for the child. The horrific images of children who have been starved, beaten, and otherwise mistreated or violated shock our sensibilities. Many people demand the harshest punishment possible for the offenders, and they are punished, both legally and socially.
How sincere are our sympathies for the mistreated young child, though? Are they just a passing emotion, or do we genuinely care? Do we weep crocodile tears, or authentic tears of compassion? Are we concerned about what happens to that child after she is removed to safety, or do we think to ourselves “Glad they caught the perp and that’s all over. Now the child will be okay,” and dismiss the case from our minds?
That the child will be okay is not necessarily true. The need for help, understanding, and support not just from family, but from school personnel and the community, does not end there – and it goes beyond the month of April.
A child who has been abused experiences trauma, the negative impact that is caused by physical, or psychological assault. The effects of trauma resulting from being abused as a child can be debilitating and lifelong, unless there is some sort of nurturing, healing, long-term intervention. Some of the effects and behaviors associated with trauma are self-mutilation (for example, cutting), substance and alcohol use, smoking, distractedness, anger, impulsivity, suicide attempts, depression, and low self-esteem.
Over the past 20 years or so, a great deal has been learned about the enduring impact of childhood trauma on not only mental but also physical health. The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study followed more than 17,000 patients and showed a strong connection between unaddressed childhood traumas and a higher risk of heart disease, cancer, liver disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease, and early death, in addition to the mental health complications and unhealthy behaviors previously listed.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences that were studied included physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, and physical and emotional neglect. Another category was living with a family member diagnosed with mental illness, or one who is addicted to alcohol or some other substance, or a family member is in prison. Finally, witnessing a mother being abused and losing a parent, for any reason, were looked at.
It was found that ACEs don’t occur in isolation. There is an 87% probability that a person who has experienced one Adverse Childhood Experience will have two or more. The higher the number of ACEs, the greater the degree of trauma that is experienced.
Tarpon Springs, FL, has declared itself the first trauma-informed community in the U.S. What that means is that it is a community that is aware of and understands the causes of trauma. It is committed to fostering a safe and healthy environment through the development of a network made up of clergy, teachers, health care providers, governmental and non-profit employees, and others who are committed to healing in their community.
In some communities, the juvenile justice system has implemented a trauma-informed approach to legal proceedings. Judge Lynn Tepper of Florida’s Sixth Judicial Circuit Court in Dade City says that learning about trauma was like seeing the world through a new lens. Spokane, Washington, has implemented trauma-informed schools, with noteworthy results.
We should continue to mourn for the abused children if we, as a community, are not willing to provide the post-abuse help that they need. Without it, the behaviors resulting from the abuse lead far too many of those children to school truancy, expulsions, juvenile detention, and ultimately jail and/or prison where they are repeatedly re-traumatized. They are the people some individuals thoughtlessly refer to as “druggies,” or addicts. Many are labeled convicts, felons, and prostitutes. And then how much sympathy do we show them? They become the fodder for criminal justice jobs. We consent to having these children, once they are grown, put to death for crimes committed, or we clamor for the authorities to “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”
Being outraged and feeling sympathy when we learn of child abuse is not enough. For if what we do ends there, the odds are stacked against victimized children. We as individuals and as a community need to transform our sympathy for them into a commitment to do everything within our power to help them to—and along—the path to a happy, productive life.
*Featured/top image: A child runs down the stairs at the Arneson River Theatre. Photo by Scott Ball.