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Why is Child Abuse on the Rise?

Examining the recent rise in child maltreatment, abuse and deaths

As the world watches how Trump’s election will impact the economy, immigration, and international relations to name a few, I would like to shine a light on the recent uptick in child abuse in the United States. For those more economically minded, child maltreatment results in an annual $124 billion cost in the U.S. More important, 23.1 per 1,000 babies under the age of 1 year suffer from child maltreatment (higher than the odds of being killed in a car crash, which is still high at a whopping 11.87 per 100,000). In fact, 1,580 children died in 2014 as a result of child abuse and neglect. It is even possible that some of these tragic occurrences are heightened in winter months as orthopedists discover more child abuse related fractures in their offices.

While child abuse has long been known to impact people from all demographics, research indicates 79.3% of child maltreatment comes from a child’s own parents. (Child maltreatment is a more comprehensive term that includes neglect, medical neglect, psychological abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse.)

More than half the perpetrators (54.1%) are women—where 48.8% are white, 20% are African American, and 19.8% are Hispanic (7.3% unknown).

So what does this tell us?

Hopefully reporting these statistics helps break down some stereotypes. I think it also screams out that mothers need help. With the rise of single mothers and tougher economic times often necessitating the need for two-income producing parents, there may be some added burdens placed on mothers to juggle work and raising children. There may also be a need for education. Delving into numbers, child abuse cases are higher among infants and children under two years—the most critical time in a child’s life.

To understand the gravity of abuse in infancy, let's look at what happens in infancy. The infant is entirely dependent on its mother (or primary caregiver) the first year after he/she is born, not just for feeding and diaper changing, but also for healthy brain development. Because the baby has not developed neurotransmitters to learn how to soothe itself, the mother acts as a kind of external nervous system and incubator that protects and nurtures the baby. As the mother calms and reassures the infant during stress, the baby’s own nervous system begins developing neural pathways that mimic the soothing so that in time when the child grows and is faced with a challenge, its own nervous system ‘remembers’ what to do and healthy self-soothing neural pathways are engaged and neurotransmitters are released to calm the child.

This process of attunement (where the mother listens to and empathizes with the infant’s needs instead of forcing, coercing, neglecting, and frightening) is where love, trust, protection, and overall health in the baby is formed. Any disruption (like continual neglect and ignoring baby’s cues or abuse) can result in a deficit of neurotransmitters and frontal lobe impairment that leads to attention disorders, learning disorders, inability to delay satisfaction, and in extreme cases can lead to aggressive and antisocial behaviors (Gerhardt 2004, Dodge and Somberg 1987, Siegel 2012). It is this research on the brain chemistry development that leads experts to now discount the existence of an “aggressive gene.” Thus, nurture has more of an impact than formerly believed.

On top of that, additional research is revealing that any adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are now shown to directly impact one’s health over the lifespan and decrease one’s life by 20 years if exposed to six or more adverse childhood experiences (test follows).

To look at your ACE score, answer the following questions.

Prior to your 18th birthday:

1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? Or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __

2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? Or ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __

3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? Or attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __

4. Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? Or your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __

5. Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? Or your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __

6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __

7. Was your mother or stepmother: often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? Or sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? Or ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __

8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __

9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?

No___If Yes, enter 1 __

10. Did a household member go to prison?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __

Now add up your total number of “Yes” answers: _____ (This is your ACE Score)

You can read more about the CDC-Kaiser ACE study here.

The original study found that 87% of study participants had a score of two or more. That's a large number of people. A big takeway among health professionals was the connection between childhood trauma and adult onset of numerous chronic diseases, depression, suicide, and being a victim of or perpetrator of violence. This has led ACEs to being cited as the number one public health crisis. (You can see an interactive graph of the extent of health consequences here.)

Child abuse is systemic. Society can’t just blame the mother. Systems need to be put in place that better support the mother-child relationship. Historically, communities, churches and extended family stepped in and helped new mothers at higher rates. Today’s families are more fragmented and farther away from support systems. They tend to be more isolated in homes and compete with increasing “screen time” interruptions brought about through television, computers, and phones. Priorities have also changed as career and personal fulfillment goals have become increasingly imbued with desires for fame. The 65% increase of narcissism among millennials found by Jean Twenge may very well be a result of the inability to effectively self-soothe as narcissism can be a lot like a car that has a tire stuck in a ditch—yet in narcissism, the brain is stuck in the rut of self-preoccupation.

Again, if the baby and developing child are going to develop their own healthy nervous system and frontal lobe development that allows them to delay satisfaction and empathize with others, it needs a parent that can attune to it. Parents who are unable to provide the necessary attention may need greater support systems that act as a kind of external nervous system to them so that they can do the same for their children. Parents need to feel love, compassion and tolerance from others so that they can do the same for their children. They need a place where it’s safe to be human and ask for help. They need basic needs met (food, shelter, safety) along with a sense of belonging. Parent to parent support groups could be a start.

Recovery groups provide one model. With that said, one of the causes of child abuse that researchers are identifying is opioid addiction (see my post on baby boomers to see the uptick of death from this cause). Addiction is certainly one of the most common ways people with underdeveloped nervous systems have for self-medicating. While addiction adds fuel to the fire, it may be a side-effect of a nervous system gone haywire (and stressors like poverty, hormonal shifts, unemployment, illness, loss, along with adverse childhood experiences) can regress a nervous system. I suspect that one of the reasons that 12-step recovery groups are effective is because the group provides the same kind of nurturing incubator that the mother needs to provide her kids. It’s similar the feeling of release the addict is chasing through drugs.

Will support groups be the cure-all? Of course not. Child maltreatment will improve when we shine a light on it. The priority of family and the support of mothers (caregivers) in need at the societal level is important. The role of parenting in our society can be re-examined. The treatment of women and the expectations placed on them is another component. Mothers need safety, food, shelter, and a sense of belonging. They also need to learn healthy ways to self-soothe along with ways they can attune to their children and soothe their infants.

We know the cost of child maltreatment and have more evidence about its long-term effects than ever before. Yet, child maltreatment and infant deaths due to neglect and/or abuse still rose in 2014. Something needs to be done and someone needs to speak out for the innocent victims that cannot speak for themselves. Let’s start by speaking out in our local communities and helping where we can. If you have experience with this and would like to share parenting tips with mothers-in-need, please feel free to share your comments. I also encourage mothers to find—or start—support groups in your area. Talk to your pediatrician about other parents that might be interested.

I will add this quote by B.F. Skinner who promoted alternatives to punishment in child rearing, “The most effective alternative process [to punishment] is probably extinction. This takes time but is much more rapid than allowing the response to be forgotten. The technique seems to be relatively free of objectionable by-products. We recommend it, for example when we suggest that a parent 'pay no attention' to objectionable behavior on the part of his child. If the child's behavior is strong only because it has been reinforced by 'getting a rise out of' the parent, it will disappear when this consequence is no longer forthcoming.”

Focus on the positive. Redirect attention. Know the first year is the most essential in attuning to your baby. Don’t worry if the laundry is piling up; just focus on what matters. Get help and support and don’t isolate. If you are angry, suffering from post-partum depression, scored yes on any of the ACE questions, and feeling overwhelmed, please seek help immediately.

Additional resources include:

Future without Violence

“Futures Without Violence”, previously Family Violence Prevention Fund, operates to prevent and end violence against women and children around the world.

To know more, please visit their site:

Head Start

Head Start is a federal program that supports the school readiness of children ages birth to five from low-income households by developing their cognitive, social, and emotional advancement.

To know more, please visit their site:


The Mommies Network

The Mommies Network is a 501c(3) non-profit organization devoted to assisting moms find support and friendship in their local community. They began as single chapter in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2002 and started as network of chapters in 2005. They currently run about 80 local communities across the country and have over 30,000 active members. Free membership - They offer free membership to any mother who likes to join them. Open 24/7 – They have online forums setup to help mothers in need 24 hours a day, all 7 days a week. Whether it’s 2 O’ clock in the morning or 1 in the afternoon you will find someone to help out a mommy in distress. Play dates – Mommies can find plenty of friends or play mates for their little ones as well as for themselves here. Mom’s night out – Mommies can enjoy a night by taking part in a wide range of activities and have fun with likeminded friends and other mommies.

To know more, please visit their site:


Safe Horizon

Safe Horizon is the leading victims’ services agency in the United States. They provide support to victims through 57 program locations, including shelter, in-person counseling, legal services, and more. Since 1978, Safe Horizon has offered victims of domestic violence, child abuse, human trafficking, rape and sexual assault, as well as homeless youth and families of homicide victims, with a broad range of comprehensive support. Their programs also associate with governmental and other community agencies to extend further assistance, including locating resources for those residing outside New York City.

To know more, please visit their site:


The Restoration House

The Restoration House (TRH) works to help single mothers and their children. By way of transformational housing, team mentoring and family support, TRH is helping single mother families end phases of poverty and distress. In turn, TRH's Participating Families are encouraged to build brighter futures for themselves and their families.

To know more, please visit their site:


After School Alliance

The Afterschool Alliance is committed to ensuring that all children have access to affordable, quality afterschool programs. Afterschool programs are vital to children and families today, however the requirement for programs is far from being met.

To know more, please visit their site:


Alcoholics Anonymous & Al Anon

For those with a desire to stop drinking or using and would like to find a support meeting in your area, visit

For families and friends that have lived with the disease of alcoholism via others with active addiction or in recovery, you can find local support meetings here:

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