April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. In the words of the Child Welfare Information Gateway, the month aims to raise awareness with a view to prevention of “child abuse and neglect and [to] encourage individuals and communities to support children and families.” A 2008 report, Child Maltreatment 2008, stated that some 772,000 children were found to have been abused or neglected in that calendar year.
Of this number, an estimated 71 percent (71.1) suffered neglect, an estimated 16 percent (16.1) were physically abused, an estimated 9 percent (9.1) were sexually abused, an estimated 7 percent (7.3) were emotionally or psychologically maltreated, and an estimated 2 percent (2.2) were medically neglected. In addition, 9 percent of victims experienced “other” types of maltreatment such as “abandonment,” “threats of harm to the child,” and “congenital drug addiction.”
Data was taken from the most recent report of the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS); the text of Child Maltreatment 2008 can be found on the website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Needless to say, 772,000 is a terrifying statistic—especially keeping in mind that an accurate prevalence rate for child abuse is most likely impossible to determine. Researchers and practitioners believe that child fatalities due to abuse and neglect are underreported; an estimated 1,760 child fatalities were reported to the NCANDS in 2007, rate of 2.35 children per 100,000 children in the general population.
The long-term consequences of child abuse and neglect (child maltreatment) can be profound and may endure long after the abuse or neglect occurs. Effects can appear in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood, and may affect various aspects of an individual’s development (e.g., physical, cognitive, psychological, and behavioral).
These effects range in consequence from minor physical injuries, low self-esteem, attention disorders, and poor peer relations to severe brain damage, violent behavior, and death. However, while maltreated children are at greater risk for these negative effects, many children are resilient in the face of adversity.
In addition, children with disabilities are at greatest risk and incidence of maltreatment through abuse and neglect. Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption by Ralph Saverese, an English professor and poet, narrates his and his wife Emily’s adoption of a non-verbal, autistic boy, D.J., who had been physically and sexually abused in foster care in Florida. Now a teenager, D.J. attends a public school in Iowa and writes and communicates via typing.
The Child Welfare Information Gateway’s site states that its purpose is to “protect children and strengthen families.” The site contains a section on supporting and preserving families, while also noting that abuse can and does happen outside the home. A section on perpetrators of physical, sexual and emotional abuse mentions babysitters and educators and school staff; also noted is a report on the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and deacons in the United States by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Recent reports about the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church have arisen throughout the world with Pope Benedict XVI himself being drawn into the scandal. These reports ought also to serve as a harsh and terrible reminder that child abuse is not only more prevalent than we might well wish to think, but that it might well be happening to our children by those in whom faith and trust has been placed.
Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse that happens to individuals in their childhood is by no means over when a child becomes an adult. Adult survivors live with wrenching, complex, and deep psychological scars, as a result of the violation of their bodies, their minds, and their spirits. Today is April 30th and therefore the last day of National Child Abuse Prevention Month but this is a problem that we need to address and work not simply to identify and be aware of, but to prevent, every single day.
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