The little boy was so malnourished that he was close to death. He had been locked in a closet for six months and rarely given food or water. At just nine years old, he had endured shocks from a taser gun, been hit with a hanger and burned repeatedly by his father and stepmother. Out of a desperate human need to survive, he had drank his own urine because he was so dehydrated. The rest of this column could easily be filled by other equally disturbing stories of child abuse and neglect. April is National Child Abuse Prevention month, a month where all citizens are called to action to recognize, report and prevent child abuse. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, a child is abused or neglected every 47 seconds. More than four children die every day as a result of child abuse or neglect. From a financial standpoint, child abuse costs an estimated $80 billion annually. The toll that child abuse takes on children and society is massive — from psychological, physical and emotional impacts on children, to financial, social and legal implications for the greater society. Seventy-six percent of state prison inmates report a history of child abuse. Is this surprising? Probably not, when you consider the development of young children and how they make sense of the world and the people that are in their world. While an abused or neglected child may be rescued from a violent or unhealthy home, the lasting impacts of what that child experienced are substantial. Research consistently demonstrates that childhood trauma can change brain chemistry and produce mental illness. When I was an investigator with the State of Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, my exposure to the realities of child abuse was raw and real. Broken bones, burns, bruises, sexual abuse, failure to meet a child’s basic needs and exposure to domestic violence and drug abuse were common occurrences. While myself and other professionals were mandated by law to report child abuse, National Child Abuse Prevention month calls all individuals to advocate for the safety and welfare of children — year-round. There are three primary forms of child abuse: neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse. While neglect accounts for about 75 percent of all child maltreatment cases, physical and sexual abuse are just as important to recognize and report. Neglect is defined as a failure to meet a child’s basic needs, which can include food, clothing, shelter, stimulation and medical care. This may be the child who always shows up dirty and unkempt at family functions. Perhaps you notice a child who always seems hungry, almost ravenous, when around food. Neglect may also be seen in a child who avoids interaction with others, or appears severely underweight. Of course, there are children with documented medical or developmental issues that could account for some of these symptoms, but this is not always the case. Physical abuse can present in many forms, including suspicious marks on a child that seem to recur. Sometimes the physically abused child will demonstrate what is known as a “trauma response,” which is when someone jumps or startles when a person attempts to be close to them or extend appropriate physical touch. Sexual abuse is defined as the act of engaging in sexual activity with a minor. This could involve touching, specific sexual acts not involving intercourse and sexual intercourse. The sexually abused child can demonstrate inappropriate knowledge of sexual terms, language or behavior. They may also have physical indications of sexual abuse, such as complaints about their genital area or signs of a sexually transmitted disease. Very young children who have been sexually abused may develop problems with basic toileting tasks, such as wetting the bed. Dante, who was an Italian poet and the author of Dante’s Inferno, said this: “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those, who in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” Maintaining your neutrality when you have knowledge of child maltreatment puts children at risk and maintains the cycle of abuse, pain and fear. Children are dependent on observant adults to come forward and be the voice for them when they cannot speak for themselves. While the sometimes lackluster responses of some child welfare agencies to child abuse reports is a reality, the first step to protecting children is picking up the phone and making a report. To anonymously report child abuse or neglect, please call (800) 4-A-CHILD. Until next time…be well.
Diane Bigler is a licensed clinical social worker who lives in Platte City with her family. She may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.