We all must play a role in child abuse prevention

Child abuse and neglect still occur at epidemic rates in the U.S. In 2019, one in seven children experienced it in some form, and more than 1,800 children died as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For many of us, this fact may be difficult to grasp, since so much publicity and awareness has been given to this issue in recent decades. From high-profile media reports to long-running television dramas, it’s a topic that has been highlighted and a cause that’s been advocated for since President Carter designated the first National Child Abuse Prevention Month in 1979, which we now observe each April, annually.

Yet, the problems continue at staggering rates. According to the Children’s Bureau, over 4.4 million referrals involving more than 7.9 million children are made to child protection agencies each year. Every 10 seconds a report of child abuse occurs in our country, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — and astoundingly, nearly 98,000 of those cases involve children under the age of 1.

In addition to the obvious immediate and short-term effects, victims often experience lingering issues for years – and even decades – after their initial incidents. For example, according to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, abused children are far more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors as tweens and teens, making them 25% more likely to experience teenage pregnancies and much more susceptible to contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

In one study, approximately 80% of 21-year-olds who were abused as children met the criteria for at least one psychological disorder. Another found that 30% of adults who were abused and neglected as children wound up doing the same to their own children — literally creating a vicious cycle.

Substance abuse is often at the root of many of these horrible scenarios, as parents and caregivers with drug and alcohol addictions are often overwhelmed with various stressors, creating a trickle-down effect that ends with children bearing the physical and emotional brunt. More than 86,000 children were removed from their home in 2019 because at least one parent had a drug abuse issue, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and substance abuse was one of the top two problems exhibited by families in 81% of reported abuse cases. Again, the cycle continues, as more than a third of adolescents who have a history of abuse or neglect in their homes will develop a substance use disorder of their own before their 18th birthday. That’s three times as likely as those without a report of abuse or neglect.

Of course, the pandemic hasn’t helped. At the onset, many warnings were issued as experts correctly anticipated a rise of domestic abuse incidents, especially during the early lockdown. However, a largely unexpected pandemic byproduct has occurred with a rise in cyberbullying and online exploitation, because children are spending so much more time at computers in virtual learning settings. Moreover, experts also believe many cases are now being underreported.

As a pediatric surgeon, as with all providers who care for children, these issues are heartbreaking to witness, and we’re quick to take action when we see or even suspect that a child is in danger. We train all of our staff to look for and recognize various warning signs, and understand how to quickly and safely report possible abusive situations.

You can do this too! Locally, there are organizations such as the Family Justice Center and the Erie County Coalition Against Family Violence which you can contact if you witness or suspect a child is in danger. There are also national resources available at agencies like the Child Welfare Information Gateway and the CDC, or you can call the National Child Abuse Hotline, toll-free: 1-800-4-A-CHILD or 1-800-422-4453. All calls are kept confidential and private, providing safety measures for both you and any children involved.

We all can learn how to recognize the signs of child abuse and neglect. While April may be National Child Abuse Prevention Month, this is a daily, year-round threat for far too many young people in our communities. Please, join us in making sure our region’s children have supporters ready to keep them safe, healthy and loved.

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