April is Child Abuse Awareness Month, and sadly, it brings us sobering statistics about the fate of children in the United States. Taken from the Department of Health and Human Services 2014 summary of child welfare statistics:
- The national estimates of children who were subjects of an investigation or an alternative response increased by 7.4 percent from 2010 (3,023,000) to 2014 (3,248,000).
- Three quarters (75%) of the victims experienced neglect; 17% were physically abused, and 8.3% were sexually abused.
- In FY2014, a nationally estimated 1,580 children died of abuse and neglect at a rate of 2.13 out of every 100,000 children. That is a death rate of 4 to 5 children per day in the United States, who died because of abuse and/or neglect.
According to www.childhelp.org (2016):
- More than 3.6 million reports were made to State child welfare agencies in 2014, involving over 6.6 million children.
- In 2014, over 702,000 victims of child abuse were found in the United States. That is enough to fill 10 professional football stadiums.
- Children who experience six or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) had an estimated life expectancy of two decades less than those who experienced no adverse childhood experiences.
- More than 70% of children who died as a result of abuse or neglect were less than two years of age. More than 80% who died were under kindergarten age.
- Around 80% of child abuse perpetration involved at least one parent.
- Around 90% of the cases of child sexual abuse involved a perpetrator who was well known to the child.
- Children who experience abuse and neglect are nine times more likely to become involved in criminal activity.
- Roughly two-thirds of the people in treatment for addiction to alcohol or drugs were child victims.
Heard enough? While it is tempting to believe that such statistics do not apply in a particular neighborhood, within a certain faith, or in any other demographic, the painful reality is that there is no place, no group, and no faith that is completely free of the abuse and neglect of children.
One may be tempted to give up in the face of such information. What is more important, though, is to commit to being part of the solution to the problem, and the best way to do that is to be aware of the warning signs of abuse and neglect and to know what to do if those signs are evident.
In Massachusetts, neglect is defined as a failure, by the caretaker, to provide food, clothing, shelter, supervision or other essential care in such a way as to impair a child’s ability to function. For example, if a parent does not lock doors, takes a nap and a two-year-old runs into the street and gets hit by a car; that would be neglect. In this instance, the parent did not take proper precautions to protect the child.
Parents who hit a child in anger can, whether intentionally or accidentally, leave marks on the child’s body, such as bruises, welts, handprints, etc. While spanking is not against the law, leaving marks on a child is typically classified as abuse. The disciplinary action has gone beyond what is considered acceptable when children are injured in the process, and such punishment should be reported. Children often arrive at schools or in other settings with black eyes, bruises, and other marks. Unexplained injuries; injuries that do not fit the description of how they were obtained; or a child who appears too frightened to say how an injury occurred are all indicators of possible abuse that should be reported.
Children who have been sexually abused may exhibit any of the following behaviors:
- Reporting difficult or painful urination or defecation;
- Frequently touching themselves, even in front of classmates or in other public settings;
- Initiating sexual play with peers that is far beyond what a child that age should know about;
- Asking other children to expose their private parts, or parts of the body that are in the swimsuit zone;
- Being almost obsessed with talking about or looking at private parts;
- Asking peers to keep secrets about sexual interaction;
- Trying to intimately kiss peers or touch peers out of sight of adults;
- Tweens or teens may engage in promiscuous activity with peers, older minors or adults; and
- Children may become very upset about going to visit a certain person or have that person babysit.
Children who are constantly belittled by a caretaker, such as a parent, teacher or coach, may start repeating that s/he is stupid, can’t play sports, is worthless, etc. Self-esteem drops and the child seems less interested in many or all aspects of daily life.
What to do?
First and foremost, remember that unless you are a trained forensic interviewer, you should NEVER try to investigate a situation yourself. Too often, people believe they should ask enough questions to see if a report should be taken seriously. The correct response is to always assume the report is true until proven otherwise, which is a task that is only for a trained forensic interviewer—basically a DCF (MA Department of Children and Families) investigator.
If a young child shows you an injury, it is acceptable to ask, “How did you get that?” or “What happened?” Let the child tell you in his own words, and listen. If there is a reasonable and safe explanation, such as, “My brother and I were playing ninjas on the floor and I rolled right into the coffee table,” and the injury is consistent with the explanation, just say you are sorry the child was hurt, be sympathetic, and move on.
If you get any indication that the child is afraid to talk, was told not to say anything more, or that the injury does not fit the explanation offered, STOP asking questions and simply report. Every parish and school has a reporting agent to whom you can report, or you can call the Diocesan Office for Child Protection (508) 997-7337. If you cannot find anyone to report to, you can call directly to DCF (information at the end of this article).
If you have reason to suspect sexual abuse because of the child’s behaviors, report it immediately! If you believe that a child may be a victim of emotional abuse, report it. When in doubt, always report and let the professionals guide you.
If a child has what appears to be a serious or life-threatening emergency, call 9-1-1 first and ask for immediate assistance. First responders such as paramedics are the best hope for a child who is seriously injured. Likewise, if there is a threat of physical harm, police officers are best equipped to deal with such an emergency. Take the most sensible course of action first and then report to DCF or your reporting agent as soon as possible.
Minors who run away from home are often lured by predators who pretend to be friends or even romantic interests initially, but who force minors into a life of sexual slavery. This occurs all over the Commonwealth, as well as in every state in this country. Even some of the students in our Catholic schools can be trafficked without adults realizing it, so be aware of the warning signs. Examples of indicators are:
- Tattoos that resemble bar codes or price tags. They tell other predators that the victim belongs to a particular predator or pimp.
- A person who has few or no personal possessions;
- A person who is forced to work long hours;
- A person who appears continually fearful or withdrawn;
- A person who defers to others to speak for him/her;
- A person who has virtually no friends or outside contacts;
- A person who has been threatened with deportation;
- A person who has been told s/he must pay off debts that were incurred without the person’s knowledge.
If you see some or several of these indicators, report it and let an expert help you help the victim!
Minors today are bombarded with images of unattainable beauty, immediate and sometimes painful communications via social media, and a host of other expectations that are overwhelming for experienced adults, let alone minors. These pressures can sometimes lead a minor to a decision to attempt suicide. Most individuals who attempt suicide do not necessarily want to die, but they DO want to be free of the pain they are currently experiencing. For young people who have not experienced the ups and downs, or cycles of life, the pain can feel permanent, as if life will never get better. It is in those moments that many make the decision to act.
Studies have shown that the time period from making the decision to commit suicide to taking action is only 20 minutes. If an individual can make it through those 20 minutes, chances are good that the drive to commit suicide will pass. What is most important is that you alert a professional immediately once you learn of a person’s intent to commit suicide. Making the person promise not to do it is no guarantee of success; suicidal individuals will often say anything just to be left alone to do as s/he wishes. If you believe someone is truly suicidal, call 9-1-1, take the person to the Emergency Department, or do what is needed to get help immediately, taking care not to leave the person alone even for a second.
The bottom line is that some individuals can convince just about anyone of just about anything, and can find a way to commit suicide if that is the person’s true intent. If that happens to someone you care about, you will at least want to know that you did everything possible to help your loved one.
In addition to reporting concerns to a trained professional, the very best thing parents and caretakers can do is to spend time with children and talk with them! When children understand and believe that they are important to their parents/caretakers, and when they know that they can share anything with a parent, they are less likely to fall into the many traps that exist in today’s world. They are more likely to listen to their instincts and even when they make mistakes and get involved in inappropriate or dangerous things, they are more apt to share with parents before the situation becomes desperate.
The most precious gift we can give our children is our time, because if they do not feel like a priority in our lives, nothing else we say or do will matter. Be there first, and then be a role model for faith, hope, charity and all the other excellent attributes you hope they attain. No parent is or can be perfect, but when love is the primary influence in the home, everything else will fall into place.
May God richly bless you in the important work of raising a child!
For more information about these and other topics in child safety, please call the Office for Child Protection at (508) 997-7337 or email Debora Berg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Child welfare information: www.childhelp.org
Adverse Childhood Experience Study: www.acestudy.org
Blue Campaign (Human Trafficking): www.dhs.org/humantrafficking
Human Trafficking (U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement or ICE): www.ice.gov/tips
American Association of Suicidology: www.suicidology.org
Craig Miller (suicide attempt survivor): www.thisishowitfeels.com
Families for Depression Awareness: www.familyaware.org
MA Coalition for Suicide Prevention: www.masspreventssuicide.org
Suicide Prevention Resource Center: www.sprc.org
The Trevor Project (for LGBTQ Youth): www.thetrevorproject.org
Suicide Prevention: www.helpguide.org