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What can we do to really PREVENT child abuse?

April 10, 2013

As you are driving around in the next few weeks, you may see clusters of blue and silver pinwheels in front of local businesses and organizations. These pinwheel gardens are displayed for the purpose of calling attention to April as Child Abuse Prevention Month.  As someone who works in a program that provides counseling to children who have been abused, I would like nothing better than to work myself out of a job—to reduce child abuse and neglect to a point where programs like The Orange County Children’s Advocacy Center are not needed.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that is likely to happen anytime soon. Here are some disturbing facts:

  • Each year, one in 58 children is abused by an adult caregiver.
  • Approximately five children die each day from child abuse and neglect.
  • Over 80% of neglect and physical and emotional/mental abuse and over 90% of sexual abuse is committed someone known to the child. The most common perpetrator of physical abuse and neglect is a biological parent.  The most common perpetrator of sexual abuse is a family friend or acquaintance.
  • Only 10% of child sexual abuse is committed by a stranger.
And is it widely accepted that child abuse and neglect remain seriously under-reported. The figures above just reflect reported incidents of abuse.

“Stranger danger” is something children tend to hear a lot about. However, when it comes to neglect and physical and emotional/mental abuse, they are much more likely to be hurt by someone who loves them but who has become terribly overwhelmed or who has a limited support system. To really prevent child abuse, we not only need to report it when it has occurred, we need to provide meaningful, accessible and affordable assistance to parents and caregivers who are at risk of abusing their children.

Abuse risk factors are well-known. They include financial strain or unemployment, substance abuse or mental health issues including depression, domestic violence in the home, families parented by individuals who were abused as children, social isolation, poor coping and anger management skills, untreated child behavior problems and other parental risk factors including young age, low education, single parenthood and a large number of dependent children in the home.

There are also well-documented protective factors such as adequate housing, access to healthcare and social services, parental employment, nurturing parenting skills, supportive social networks, stable relationships in the home, household rules and positive behavior management and the presence of caring adults who can serve as role models or mentors.

I have met and worked with all kinds of families through the years. I can honestly say that only on the rarest of occasions have I met parents who I thought were cruel or who inflicted harm on their children intentionally. I’ve met parents who are scared, who have lost hope, who haven’t overcome their own challenging upbringing or childhood abuse, who don’t trust themselves to know how to parent, who are addicted to substances or destructive behaviors, who have no one to turn to when they are at the end of their rope, who have limited knowledge of child development and think their children misbehave on purpose and who have such low self-esteem that they think they aren’t worthy of love from their children. I’ve met parents who have to get up at 4 am to catch a bus to take their child to daycare on one side of town and then take the bus back to the other side of town to get to work. They then take the same bus back home and arrive at 7 pm. I’ve met parents who left their hometown as part of a substance abuse recovery plan and who don’t know anyone in their new location they can call on for help. I’ve met parents who actually have to practice saying “I love you,” “You did a good job” or “I’m proud of you” to their children because they never heard it as they grew up. And I’ve met parents who are usually loving and nurturing but who experienced an unusual “perfect storm” of stress and ended up hurting their child.

If we as a community want to reduce child abuse, we need to support struggling families. While it is very important that everyone commit to reporting suspected child abuse (Florida Hotline is 1 (800) 96 ABUSE or 962-2873), there is much more we can do. Reach out when you know parents who are struggling, exhausted, angry and frustrated. You can offer to give them a break by caring for their kids for a couple of hours. You can let them know about a “Mothers Morning Out” program at a local house of worship. You can invite them to call you if they need to talk. You can let them know about Parents Anonymous, a free self-help group for parents who are struggling. You can let them know they can call 211 anytime for guidance in finding help with parenting and other affordable resources and assistance.

We can also support and advocate for programs providing intervention which has been proven to be effective in helping families. Healthy Families Orange at the Howard Phillips Center for Children and Families provides an in-home visiting program to families in certain zip code areas. The family support workers assist parents by teaching them about child development, helping them learn positive discipline and answering questions about their child’s behavior and needs. The Department of Children and Families recently verified that three years after the end of their participation in Healthy Families, 95% of the families served have had no reports of abuse or neglect. This is an amazing and cost-effective result! This program is one of many proven interventions for families.

Our children deserve to grow up happy and healthy. And parents want that for their kids. Anyone can stumble, given enough strain. Let’s help each other raise kids who are cherished and safe by reaching out to families who are having a difficult time.

Here are some helpful resources:

For more information on April’s child abuse prevention activities, go to www.PaintOrlandoBlue.com

Parents Anonymous “Asking for Help is a Sign of Strength” 407.679.2030 www.parentsanonymous.org

211 @ Heart of Florida United Way.  Call 211 or http://www.refersoftware.com/211CommunityResources/

Child protection:  www.preventchildabuse.org  and www.d2l.org

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