Horrific reports of child abuse have flooded our news media throughout 2011. In fact, over the past 10 years, more than 20,000 American children are believed to have been killed in their own homes by family members. That is nearly four times the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was jolted when I read this statistic, which Michael Petit, president of Every Child Matters, reported in his recent BBC News article, America's Child Death Shame (10/20/11). 75 % of children in our country who die from abuse are under four years old, while nearly half are less than a year. My gut tightens as I read these numbers, and yet they're not the sum of it, because millions more children are reported as abused and neglected every year.

Why? Why does this evil persist? "Child abuse is a greater risk to kids than cancer or car accidents" stated Libby Ralston, Executive Director of the Dee Morton Low Country Children's Center, in Charleston, South Carolina. What will it take to abolish child abuse in our country? "An unwavering, proactive response," writes Michele Booth Cole in her article Child sexual abuse: four steps America must take (The Root, 12/2/11).

Ms. Cole focuses on child sexual abuse, as she urges us to capitalize on conditioning we have acquired through our nation's war on terror: if we see something, say something. We must

  • 1. acknowledge the scope of the problem
  • 2. shatter myths by publicizing the facts
  • 3. emphasize every adult's responsibility to report suspicious activity or known abuse
  • 4. provide guidance on how to report and present abuse to every adult and institution that serves children

 Here's an acknowledgement of the scope of the problem: only weeks ago Janice Amy Lloyd, in USA Today (12/15/11), reported the results of a recent CDC study saying that nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have been raped in their lifetime.  Among female victims 30% reported that they were first raped between 11 and 17 years of age and 12 % reported being raped at age 10 or younger. Among males, 28% of victims were first raped when they were 10 or younger. These heinous crimes have got to stop.

Look no further than this year's horrifying Penn State sexual abuse scandal. On the positive side, it became an instant springboard for intensive media coverage about the realities of child sexual abuse.  Challenging the myth of sexual abuse as a solely invisible crime,  Penn State's multiple points of failure to intervene included a long list of people who may have had knowledge of possible abuse. This list of alleged possibilities includes: the university president, senior vice-president, athletic director, Coach Joe Paterno, a janitor, a high school assistant principal, wrestling coach, campus police officers, and officials with the Second Mile Foundation.

Why would someone who sees or suspects abuse fail to report it? In Donna Leinwand Leger's article, Silence Common in Child Sexual Abuse Cases (USA Today, 12/6/11), she suggests several possible scenarios:

  • they don't want to believe what they saw
  • a sense of horror can lead to emotional shutting down
  • when people do report, the community may be so aghast that it rejects the allegations and the person who delivered them
  • no one wants to believe that this kind of thing happens, so there's a real internal drive to make it untrue
  • reaching out to the authorities in itself can be scary
  • whistle blowers may fear criticism for accusing someone who is well-liked in the community
  • fear of ruining someone's life and family

 Is there a lesson for us here? Deborah Donovan Rice, executive director of Stop it Now! thinks that we recognize the signs of abuse more than we're willing to admit. "We're not honest with ourselves about how many times we have felt uncomfortable about what another adult is doing. It's time we got honest with ourselves."

Martin Finkel, D.O. and Esther Deblinger, Ph.D., are co-directors of the CARES Institute at UMDNJ, where they have devoted more than two decades to the diagnosis, treatment and recovery of children who have suffered abuse or neglect. In a Times of Trenton opinion column written by them (nj.com, 12/29/11) they advocate protecting our children by changing the way we talk about issues that are so abhorrent most of us would rather look away. For starters, they say that because of the realities at the heart of the statistics, we need to educate our children from a very early age about sexual abuse the way we educate them to protect themselves from other widespread dangers. Talk with them about personal privacy and private parts, using the correct words. To accentuate why precise words are important, they recount the story of a 5-year-old girl whose parents taught her not to let others touch her "diamonds". When she was inappropriately touched, she told her teacher that someone had touched her diamonds. The teacher didn't understand, and no one intervened.

 Drs. Finkel and Deblinger point out that we should also educate children by encouraging schools and counselors to talk about sexual abuse so that they understand there is no shame in talking about these unfortunately not uncommon experiences. Though I agree with their suggestions I do believe that some parents may strongly disagree. I'm remembering a Prevent Child Abuse Georgia event - a gathering of mothers - at which I spoke when my memoir (When the Piano Stops: A Memoir of Healing from Sexual Abuse )was released (www.whenthepianostops.com). The contrast in the way two mothers handled the issues sparked a stimulating discussion. The first mother, wanting to hide the topic,  kept my book in a brown paper bag so that her children wouldn't see it. The next, more open-minded mother, left it on a table and when her eight-year-old daughter asked: "What is sexual abuse?" she used it as an opportunity to, on her daughter's level, talk to her about sexual abuse and the importance of not keeping secrets. I think that for some parents it is a shameful topic, but I also think they're they don't want to taint their child's innocence. Talking about sexual abuse may feel to these parents like they're perpetrating a form of abuse on their children. (In an earlier blog I have elaborated on the topic of talking to your child about sexual abuse)>

The various scenarios I've described thus far present you with  personal points to ponder as you discern the proactive contribution you will make this year toward eliminating child abuse in this country. But solutions to the child abuse tragedy also have a political component. In the BBC article mentioned at the beginning of this blog (http://www.bbc.co.ik/news/magazine), Michael Petit explains that the rates of teen pregnancy, high school attrition, violent crimes, imprisonment, and poverty - all factors associated with abuse and neglect - are high in the US. While other rich nations have social policies that provide child care, universal health insurance, pre-school, parental leave and visiting nurses to virtually all in need, these services are not widely available in our country.  Instead, when children are born into young, unprepared families local social safety nets are often weak or non-existent. There's no intervention to abate the stress the child must endure, and in the most severe cases there is often a predictable downward spiral and the child dies.

Furthermore, a child's well-being is often also determined by geography, points out Petit. For an example, he compares Vermont and Texas. Texas prides itself in being a low tax, low service state; Vermont is a high tax, high-service state. Children from Texas are twice as likely to drop out of high school as children from Vermont, four times more likely to be uninsured, four times more likely to be incarcerated, and nearly twice as likely to die from abuse and neglect. Texas has a higher poverty rate, higher proportions of minority children, lower levels of educational attainment, and a politically conservative culture which holds a narrower view of the role of government in addressing social issues. Texas, he explains, is likely to have a weaker response to families that need help in the first place and is even less efficient in protecting children after abuse occurs.

 These factors raise the question of an expanded federal role, points out Petit. Are children Texas children first, or are they first American children? What about equal opportunity and protection? He believes that Congress should adopt legislation that would create a National Commission to End Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, and that no children's programs should be cut. "Children did not crash the US economy," he writes.  "It's both shortsighted economic policy and morally wrong to make them pay the price for fixing it." 

Today we're on the threshold of a new year, a year in which 2011's multiple points of failure, if we've learned from them, can be transcended through fulfillment of 2012's opportunities for success. Don't waste your anger about the plight of abused children. Instead, let it fuel a change-making fire within you. Choose at least one proactive contribution to the safety of children you will make this year, and stick to it.

Thank you for reading my blog, and Happy New Year!

You are reading

Overcoming Child Abuse

Feeling Victimized by Presidential Campaign Updates?

What to do if memories of your childhood sexual abuse are being triggered

Where Have All the Lifeguards Gone?

Resources to help child abuse survivors stay afloat this summer

Just Get Over it and Move On!

Why do words like these hurt survivors of childhood sexual abuse?