Childhood is supposed to be a time of innocence, of learning and growth, the freedom to play with friends, and explore new places and activities without fear. For many children, however, there is no such normal childhood. They are lost in a tangled web of fear. Afraid to go home, they often drift into harm’s way on the streets or never reach their true potential. Caring adults can do something about this. Here are some suggestions on what you can do.
Learn to recognize the signs that point to a child’s fear of going home. Does the child break into tears, cling to the parents of friends, and hang around school or other establishments instead of going home? Are there visible signs of violence such as burns, bruises, cuts or misshapen bones? Does the child appear haggard, malnourished, and afraid to be touched in any way? These are all signs that something is drastically wrong, although they are by no means all-inclusive. Child abuse may be the underlying reason the child is afraid to go home.
Some of the warning signs of child abuse, provided by the Prevent Child Abuse America website include:
• Poor hygiene
• Low self-esteem
• Nervousness around adults
• Aggressiveness toward other children or adults
• Inability to concentrate or to stay awake for long periods
• Unnatural interest in sex
• Sudden and dramatic changes in personality or activities
• Unexplained or frequent injuries or bruises
Teachers, for example, may be in the best position to notice changes in the child. These include sudden changes in the child’s behavior or school performance, learning problems that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes, or an indication that medical or physical problems have not been attended to after being brought to the parents’ attention. In addition, children who are being abused often appear watchful, as if looking for something bad to happen. They also often lack adult supervision. In school, they may be overly compliant, an overachiever, too responsible, or they may come early to school and leave late, afraid to go home.
Educators who have contacted the parents may note the following behaviors. The parent requests that the school use harsh physical discipline if the child misbehaves, shows little concern for the child and rarely responds to the school’s requests for conferences, information or home visits, blames the child for problems at school/home or denies the existence of any problems. The parents may see the child as worthless, burdensome or bad, or they may hold the child to such a level of perfection that the child cannot possibly achieve it. Some child abusing parents may look to the child to satisfy their emotional needs and demand the child provide for the parents’ care and attention.
Other signs can be seen in the relationship between the parent and the child. They rarely look at each other, state that they don’t like each other, and/or consider their relationship to be negative. While any one of these signs does not necessarily indicate child abuse, a combination or repeated nature of the signs may indicate a need for a friend, educator or neighbor to take a closer look.
Prevalence of Child Abuse
In 2007, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Child Maltreatment 2007, there were an estimated 3.2 million referrals on alleged child abuse involving some 5.8 million children. The largest victimized population included children in the age group from birth to one year. More than half of all reported victims were girls (51.5 percent), compared to 48.2 percent boys. Approximately half (46.1 percent) were White, with 21.7 percent African-American, and 20.8 percent Hispanic.
Consistent with previous years, neglect was the most common type of mistreatment at nearly 60 percent (59.0 percent). More than 10 percent (10.8 percent) suffered physical abuse, while 7.6 percent suffered sexual abuse and 4.2 percent from psychological maltreatment.
There were an estimated 1,760 deaths attributed to child abuse or neglect in 2007. More than 30 percent of these fatalities were attributed to neglect only, while physical abuse was also a major contributor. More than three-quarters (75.7 percent) of the children who died were younger than 4 years old.
Nearly 80 percent of the perpetrators of child abuse were parents (79.9 percent), with another 6.9 percent being other relatives. More women were perpetrators (56.5 percent) than men (42.4 percent). And nearly 75 percent (74.8 percent) of all perpetrators were younger than 40.
Know the Risk Factors for Child Abuse
Child abuse can occur in every socioeconomic realm of society. However, the risk factors are greater in families where the parents:
• Abuse alcohol and/or drugs
• Have to deal with physical and/or mental health issues
• Appear to be uninterested in their children’s care, nourishment and safety
• Have a difficult time controlling their anger or stress
• Are experiencing economic, housing or personal problems
• Are isolated from other family members and/or the community
What is Child Abuse?
According to the International Child Abuse Network, child abuse is the bad treatment of a child under the age of 18 by a parent, caretaker, or someone living in or working around the home of the child. Child abuse can be physical, emotional, or sexual or neglect.
• Physical abuse – This includes evidence of hitting, burns, shaking, human bite marks, strangulation. Physical abuse is not accidental.
• Emotional abuse – Such child abuse covers constant teasing, disapproval and belittling. Emotional and psychological abuse occurs when the child is not nurtured or provided with love and security in order to develop mentally and/or emotionally.
• Sexual abuse – Various forms of sexual abuse include incest, fondling, touching the child’s private parts, pornography, oral and anal sex. Sexual abuse occurs when a child is involved in any form of sexual activity with an adult or other child who is older and/or more powerful.
• Neglect – This denotes the absence of adequate shelter and food, emotional and physical security, and lack of medical and dental care, cleanliness and supervision.
Report Suspected Child Abuse
Experts say you should never wait to report suspected child abuse. If you see signs that a child has been abused (physically, emotionally, sexually or neglected), you should immediately contact the appropriate authorities in your state and/or community. The International Child Abuse Network lists the following points to remember regarding reporting suspected child abuse:
• Not every state has a toll-free statewide reporting hotline.
• Some of the state hotlines are not available 24/7.
• Some state hotlines are only available within that state.
• Be patient when trying to get through to the state hotline. It may take a while, but don’t give up.
• Abuse of a child must be reported in the state where it occurred.
• Be prepared to give as much information as possible when you call. Organize the information ahead of making the call, but don’t delay calling just because you don’t have all of it. Write down all the facts you have, anything pertinent to the suspected child abuse. Here are some suggested things to cover:
o Child’s name, address and phone number
o Child’s age and gender
o Location of the child at the time you make the report
o Parents’ name, address and phone number
o Name of the person suspected of abusing the child
o Type of abuse (Here, it’s important to be as specific as possible. What have you seen or what do you suspect?)
o If there are any other siblings living in the home, give their names, ages, and gender.
o What school does the child attend?
o Are there any language barriers?
• Document everything you can about the report, including the name of the person taking it, his or her identification or badge number, date and time of the report, and everything that was said during the reporting. Keep this documentation safe and handy.
• Even if you are not sure that what you have seen or are seeing is abuse, call and ask.
• Write down any questions you may have so that you can ask them when you make the call.
• Ask to speak with a supervisor if, during the call, you feel uncomfortable about what is being said.
• Unless you are a mandated reporter (someone who is required by law to report child abuse), you can report anonymously.
For a list of in-state and out-of-state reporting, see the list provided by the International Child Abuse Network at http://www.yesican.org/suspect.html. If the number you need is not available, call information and ask for the child abuse reporting number (or the number of the police or sheriff’s department) in the state and county where the abuse occurred.
What You Can Do: Reach Out to Help
Children and parents who display signs or have some of the risk factors may be helped if you reach out to them. Don’t just assume that nothing can be done. Often, the intervention of a caring adult can mean the difference between a hopeful future and a bleak one.
Here are some suggestions on how you can help:
• Volunteer with your money and/or time to community programs that support children and families. These include parental support groups and day care centers.
• Talk with your neighbors about looking out for each other’s children. Become involved with other parents in organizing a spirit of support for the children in your apartment building or block. Show that you care.
• Take an interest in a child that you know who seems to need help. Be a friend, smile at them, and be sure to know their name. Ask politely about how school is going. Show that you care by sending them a greeting card in the mail.
• Offer help to parents you know who may need it. It may be that they’re going through a tough time personally, have lost their job or are experiencing financial difficulties or a medical issue. They may be overwhelmed, and the stress may cause them to lash out at their children. Offer to watch the children, or run errands, or just be available to listen. Show that you understand and let them know you are there to offer encouragement and support.
How to Talk With the Child
It’s difficult to accept that a child has been abused, but if you witness or suspect that a child you know has been the victim of abuse at home, you can’t in good conscience just do nothing. That won’t help the child and it won’t make you feel any better either. But what should you say to the child? Should you approach him or her? Here are some tips.
• Be matter of fact, but caring. You can’t react with shock, disgust or say things like, “It can’t be true. I can’t believe your parents would do such a thing to you.” This type of reaction will cause the child to shut down, being afraid to go further. Be calm and as reassuring as you possibly can.
• Avoid interrogating the child. Don’t grill the child with relentless questions. Just allow the child to explain in his or her own words what happened. If you ask too many questions or attempt to lead the child with your questions it will be confusing and harder for them to continue.
• Offer reassurance the child did nothing wrong. It is critical that you be convincing in your reassurance to the child that there was nothing they did to deserve such treatment. They did nothing wrong. Remember that it takes a lot of courage for a child to open up about abuse at home. Respect that and show the child that you take what they say seriously.
• Keep the child’s safety first. If you suspect the child is in imminent danger, leave the intervention to professionals. Don’t try talking with the parents if you think this will put the child in more danger. Call the child abuse hotlines mentioned previously, or law enforcement. You may be able to provide more support for the child at a later date.
• Do something to help. Don’t assume that someone else will. Call the appropriate hotline or authorities and get help for the child. Remember that you can do this anonymously, unless you are a mandated reporter (doctor, law enforcement, educator, etc.).
If you are confused yourself about what to do, contact the child abuse hotlines and talk with someone about your suspicions. They can provide guidance and get involved if the situation requires. Just talking about the situation can provide you with the reassurance you need to continue.
Remember that you are the adult, and you may be in the best position to do something about resolving child abuse that you suspect. If you take these steps early enough, you may be able to stop the abuse. This, alone, can make a tremendous difference in the life of the child.
Do not look the other way. Do something to ensure that children who are afraid to go home get the help necessary to turn the situation around – or to give them a better opportunity for a normal childhood. Child protective services will not automatically remove the child or children from the home during an investigation into child abuse. They may first offer support such as parenting classes, anger management, or other resources if appropriate and deem it safe for the child to remain in the home. You cannot second-guess what the outcome will be. But you can be sure that if you don’t act, the situation will only get worse.
Be proactive. Be gentle, reassuring, calm and diligent. Help the child look forward to a better tomorrow by getting involved today.
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