April 12, 1999
What happens to you when you hear a story like the one reported in our local newspaper recently about a 21-year old who reportedly shook his two-month-old daughter so hard it broke her ribs and may leave her blind?
Or when you chance on a situation where a parent is berating their child with insults you wouldn't use on your neighbor's dog (or you hear yourself doing it?) When you learn about that guy you thought was so nice who turns out to have been sexually abusing his stepdaughter?
If you're like me, you want to turn away. Turn it off. Leave it up to someone else. It's too hard to hear.
My education about child abuse began ten years ago when I worked at a mental health center. I was shocked to learn the huge percentage of those receiving services that traced their problems back to childhood abuse or neglect.
Every day, I saw the wreckage resulting from children being left alone for hours on end while a parent chased drugs or being used as sexual playthings. Daily, I heard stories of children who spent their lives cowering while vicious assaults took place in kitchens and bedrooms, or who died at the hands of a "caregiver."
These stories haunted me. I wanted to turn away. Turn it off. Leave it to someone else. I still feel that way.
Child abuse hurts. It doesn't just hurt the children who are subjected to it. It hurts the people who have to hear about it, the people who perpetrate it, and the people who marry into it. It hurts educators who must try to teach through the fog abuse creates around children, and it hurts the others in the classroom who lose the chance to learn because of another child's anger or pain.
Child abuse and neglect fill bars with people drinking down down their anguish. It fills homes and highways with fury, and it fills our jails, mental hospitals, and streets with the walking wounded. It hurts us all.
Nobody really wants abuse to happen, even the person who is perpetrating it. The abusers are often acting out a script that feels inevitable, one learned at the hands of an expert: their abuser. They've seen the rage firsthand and they know inside how deep the scars run.
Child abuse is something we would all rather turn from and know we can't. It strikes to the core of who we are as civilized people.
Many faiths and ethical systems have at their heart a principle relating to the merit accruing to those who provide protection for those cannot protect themselves. It is a bottom-line standard better than most for judging character: that of a man, a woman, a community. It seems to me a fair standard to judge by.
By this standard, I would say, our community is doing all right Not great. Not all that we can or should do. But doing some of the right things well enough.
It is devastating, then, to open the papers and read of a child blinded by a 21-year-old's uncontrolled rage.
Being involved in work that contributes to the healing of the wounds caused by abuse and preventing the cycles that perpetuate it, I felt that blow quite deeply. Why didn't we know? What else could have been done? What should have been done better?
I want to turn away. Turn it off. Leave it up to someone else.
The truth of the matter is that we all can do more, and that no matter what we do, we will never in this lifetime protect every child. There will be children missed. Opportunities to make a difference missed. And every single one will hurt us, now or later.
We all have a role to play, many roles to play, in preventing child abuse. A few possibilities are listed below. Most of us do some of them but all of us could do more.
Little things count. Getting more informed can be a big step. Reading this far along on a subject we'd all rather turn from tells me that you're ready for the next one.
April is Child Abuse Prevention month. Celebrate it your own way.
10 Things You Can Do to Help Prevent Child Abuse