Former slave Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier to build stronger children than to repair broken men.” Douglass—the social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and Lincoln’s friend and adviser—was right then, and he’s still right. With National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month both being observed in April, there may be no better time to recognize the urgency of these issues.
Twenty years ago, the connection between early exposure to domestic violence and future criminal activity was not commonly recognized. But now we have compelling data that one of the biggest predictors of future gang involvement is growing up with domestic violence. We now know that early experience to childhood trauma is not connected to future physical, mental, financial and emotional problems.
And unfortunately, we know a lot of children are being exposed to child abuse/child trauma. According to the Office of Justice Programs, about 60 percent of all youth have been exposed to violence in their homes, schools or communities. About 40 percent have been exposed to at least two incidents of violence directly, and one in 10 have been victims of five or more violent crimes. African American, Latino and poor youth are at even greater risk for exposure to violence. According to the National Center of Victims of Crime, black youth are three times more likely to be victims of reported child abuse or neglect, three times more likely to be victims of robbery, and five times more likely to be victims of homicide than whites. In fact, homicide is the leading cause of death among African American youth ages 15 to 24. We know that fragile homes, neighborhoods and communities increase a child’s risk of being exposed to violence or neglect.
Strategies to help prevent child abuse and trauma are both simple and complex, so let’s start with the simple first. The best thing you can do to help protect children from child abuse is to believe what children say. Statistically, victims of abuse do not lie. Sometimes recall is not perfect because our brains do not store memories in an organized fashion, especially when we are stressed and scared; but that does not mean that victims of abuse lie.
Second, get help! If your child is acting differently or your intuition suggests that something is wrong, tell someone and ask for help. You have a variety of options. Talk to your child’s pediatrician; call a mental health provider; or, if it’s merited, call your local child abuse hotline or the National Children’s Advocacy Center (256-533-KIDS ). Finding help for a child as soon as possible is vital for the child’s recovery and survival. It should be noted that if a case is investigated by the authorities but is ruled to be unfounded, such a finding does not mean the child is lying. “Unfounded” does not mean “did not happen.”
If you want to look for additional solutions, check out the Strengthening Families model, which offers well-researched recommendations for what families, organizations and communities can do to help prevent child abuse, interrupt the cycle of abuse and help families who have been impacted by abuse recovery. They have found when families have following protective factors: parental resilience, concrete help in times of need, social connections, knowledge about parenting and child development and an understanding of the social and emotional needs of children – children are more protected, and families are more resilient.
While Strengthening Families is a formal program that is hugely successful, there are things all of us can do to ensure that every family in our community has the support it needs. But if you want to help children just remember that we have to support families too. All too often, we act as if we believe children over 5 no longer exist within the context of their families; there is a tendency to save the children but ignore the adults. Instead, we know that if you want to save children you also have to care for the adults in their lives: we have to strengthen families.
This conversation will continue next month. Until then- do,be and live better. Be well!