Hello, adventurers, and welcome to something a little bit different! The month of April is Child Abuse Prevention Month here in the States, a month dedicated to – well, child abuse prevention. The name says it all, really. While my regular readers may know me as an avid blogger on the topic of video games, what you probably don’t know is that during the daylight hours I actually work for the justice system, trying to steer juvenile offenders away from the courtroom. Working with children in ANY field can place you in contact with children who have suffered abuse, and unfortunately my job is no different. Neglect, physical abuse,and sexual abuse are all too common, and since it oft goes unreported, it is perhaps even more common than what we know. Today, I wanted to take some time to raise awareness of the subject and to provide some tips on prevention.
You might even call it…a walkthrough!
SO HOW BAD IS THIS PROBLEM, ANYWAY?
Abuse, while common, isn’t exactly something folks are blatantly advertising. People work hard to keep abuse quiet, and oftentimes young kids don’t even understand it on a level they can express. This results in under-reporting of the problem, but there are still folks out there who compile data about this sort of thing in a search for solutions. Specifically, the Administration for Children and Families division of the US Department of Health and Human services compiles an annual report on the subject. Their most recent report was published January 2017 and shows the data for the year 2015.
So here are the stats. In the year 2015:
– 683,000 children were victims of some type of abuse or neglect (up almost 4% over the course of 5 years)
– Of those victims, 75% were victims of neglect, 17% victims of physical abuse, and 8% were victims of sexual abuse
– It is estimated that around 1,670 children died as a result of abuse or neglect
Now this isn’t all bad news. The estimated number of children in the US in 2015 (according to census data I found here) was around 73.6 million, which means that only about 1% of US kids were abused or neglected in 2015 (if we ignore unreported data). But percentages and statistics are a bit cold for my tastes, and thinking about the kids I know personally who have endured abuse and how it affected their lives, and then thinking that there are over 680 THOUSAND other kids who were impacted in the same way…1% is still too much.
SO HOW DO I RECOGNIZE ABUSE WHEN I SEE IT?
Hint: this guy is abusive.
“Okay, so now I know I should look out for abuse – but what are the signs?” As we discussed above, the signs of abuse are rarely obvious. So here are some general-use signs you can keep in mind whenever you encounter kids as part of your routine, courtesy of the government’s child welfare website. Be aware that just ONE of these problems is rarely indicative of abuse, but a combination of them along with other strange behaviors or signs should raise some red flags.
General signs…include changes in the child’s behavior such as a sudden change in school performance or attendance. Reluctance to be around a specific individual can be a sign, as well as wanting to come to school early, stay late, and unwillingness to return home. Lack of adult supervision can be a factor, and be particularly watchful if you notice a medical problem that has been reported to the child’s parent and yet goes untreated. The parent(s) of an abused child often put a ton of pressure on their kid, looking to the child’s academic or athletic performance as the sole source of satisfaction for their emotional needs. Such parents will get unnecessarily frustrated at a perceived failure by the child, and will blame the child for problems at school or home (if they even acknowledge them at all). An abusive/neglectful parent may also show little to no interest in their child, and refer to the child in strictly negative terms.
Signs of neglect…include a child that is particularly dirty and has a strong body odor. Such a child may not have the proper clothes for the current weather. Medical needs like immunizations may be out-of-date, or needs in the dental/ocular aspects of health. It’s normal for a neglected child to miss school frequently. Neglectful parents may seem indifferent towards their child, have strange behaviors, and may seem disengaged or even depressed. Alcoholism and drug use in the parent or the child can be warning signs for neglect.
Signs of physical abuse…include unusual bruising to areas like the torso or face. Be particularly watchful for fading bruises after a sudden absence from school. It’s normal for such a child to be frightened of their parents or to shrink away from any approaching adult. Physically abusive parents tend to utilize harsh physical discipline upon their child, and often describe them with incredibly harsh negatives (such as calling the child evil). If the parent(s) can’t offer a solid explanation for unusual bruises, or if explanations seem unconvincing or contradictory, that’s a warning sign. Animal abuse in either the child or the parent can be indicative of physical abuse in the home.
Signs of sexual abuse…include reports of nightmares or bedwetting, a change in appetite, and runaway behavior. A sexually abused child may demonstrate sexual knowledge or behavior that is particularly unusual or detailed. Such a child might refuse to change for gym class, have trouble with certain physical activities (sitting, walking), and may become attached to adults around them very quickly. A sexually abusive parent is often very secretive and overprotective, wanting strict control of what family members are involved in the child’s life and when the child is around members of the opposite sex.
Identifying child abuse is tricky because many of these signs could be indicative of other mental health issues. What’s important is vigilance. When you see many signs together, and when your knowledge of the child’s family life leads you to believe that something suspicious may be going on, it might be time to take action.
OKAY, WELL HOW DO I TAKE ACTION?
Child protection at its finest!
So now you know abuse is a problem and you know how to recognize the warning signs – so what then? Well, when you identify a child that you believe could be suffering from neglect, you should consider reporting it. In fact, some states have laws mandating you to report suspected abuse. So it’s an important step to take. And don’t worry about turning out to be wrong – making a report of abuse or neglect that ends up being unsubstantiated isn’t a crime unless it is evident that you knew right from the get-go that there was no abuse happening. If you had a legitimate reason to believe there was an abuse issue and made the effort out of the goodness of your heart, then you did the right thing.
As to where you can make a report, the child welfare website provides this nifty page with each state’s reporting method. This will allow you to identify the method of reporting abuse in the state you live in.
When it comes to abuse and neglect, prevention is the best weapon against them, and it’s perhaps the easiest way to get involved. After all, just spreading information about the issue can be a method of prevention! There are other methods too, though, and we’ll discuss those here.
For parents…remember to hit that pause button when you need to. Breaks are incredibly vital – I say this as a parent, not as a guy writing a child abuse article. When your child will not chill out, feel free to place them in a crib or similar safe place and separate yourself from them for a few minutes. The cooldown is good for both of you. Your kid will be alright, let them cry. Have a trusted adult babysit your child from time to time so you can blow off some steam. Be sure to attend to your child’s basic needs such as food, clothing, and medical treatment. That seems straightforward, but kids are expensive and money gets tight faster than any of us might think. Reach out to family or to a local organization that provides for your basic needs if making ends meet is tough. To summarize this whole section in one sentence: ASK FOR HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT. You are not invincible and no one expects you to be.
When asking for help, though, make sure it comes from a reliable source. If you need childcare, be sure to use an organization that conducts thorough background checks and mandates training for their employees. Leaving your child alone with an adult that you don’t know well or even with an older kid can be asking for trouble. In my line of work, the vast majority of sexual assault cases I have seen were the result of an older child being unsupervised and providing childcare to a younger one. When it comes to childcare, use an adult, and make sure it’s an adult you can rely on.
Also, a note on discipline: if you’re going to use spanking as a method of discipline, you need to make sure you use it correctly. Personally, I don’t recommend spanking, but some folks have strong feelings about it and feel that spanking is an appropriate punishment in some situations. If that’s your mindset, just be sure to utilize spanking appropriately. The key to this is to spank as discipline, NOT as an emotional reaction to your child’s behavior. Spanking as disciplinary action is meant to be a consequence; if it comes from a place of anger, your child will perceive it as you simply hitting them. It’s not a punishment, it’s an attack. So when your child does something to make you very angry (as an example, let’s say (s)he hits you): place them in time out FIRST and go cool off. When the personal anger and hurt that you feel have faded, that is the appropriate time to deliver the spanking. If you spank angry, you’re going to encourage violent behavior in your child and you run the risk of bruising them, which is absolutely abuse from a legal standpoint. Make sure that the child understands that the spanking is a consequence that they are receiving for a very specific behavior. This helps them identify it as a punishment rather than as a direct attack against them.
As for alternatives to spanking? Just like with the issue of abuse itself, preventing the behaviors that would lead to a spanking is more effective than doling out punishment afterward. Make sure that you are rewarding your child for positive behaviors! This doesn’t have to be something crazy like money or treats all the time – kids soak up verbal praise and attention in a big way. When your child demonstrates positive behavior, thank them, congratulate them, and make sure they know you are paying attention to them in that moment. Conversely, verbally discourage negative behaviors as soon as they happen and then don’t overreact. Giving too much focus to a negative behavior can be a form of attention too, and if you aren’t reinforcing positive behaviors, this can become the only kind of attention your child strives for. If your child is old enough to have a conversation with you, discuss the impacts and consequences of negative behaviors and take away privileges rather than spanking. Finally, pick your battles. Overuse of any punishment makes it lose effectiveness, and sometimes your expectations of your kid may simply be too high. Some things are not worth a full blown time out or grounding. If you dole out punishment for every tiny infraction, your child won’t take you seriously. Particularly if you have very young kids, the main behaviors you really need to discourage with punishment are those that present legitimate physical danger to the child.
For non-parents…you may or may not be around kids all that often, but any of the skills discussed above can be helpful when you are. Be an encouragement to the parents in your life. When they are struggling and feel overwhelmed, let them know that they are awesome and you are there for them. Spend time with them when they need to cool down. If you have some experience with kids and are comfortable with caring for them, consider offering your services as a babysitter when parent and child need a cooldown period. Both as a parent and as someone who works with kids in the justice system, I cannot emphasize enough the significance of a good family friend that kids can trust. That extra layer of safety and positive encouragement goes a long way towards abuse prevention.
And that, adventurers, is gonna be it for me today. If you’re interested in getting more information on the issue of child abuse or maybe want to know more about how you personally can get involved in the fight against it, check out this website for more detailed info on the subject. The month of April is gonna have a lot of stuff going on when it comes to this topic, so be sure to share anything you see with information for prevention and identification of abuse. Heck, share this article if you want. At the very least, please take this knowledge to heart and use it to help protect the kids in your life. Thanks for reading!