The recent deaths of children — Omaree, Izabellah, Leland — are deeply distressing; an urgent call to address child abuse. But it's rare that abused children die. Most of what they suffer are traumatic interpersonal relationships that leave no physical wounds.

Child protective services, the police and the courts often fail to protect them and this was inevitable — a logical outcome since the early 1980s when they were given the task.

Why? Legal systems can't act until a crime has been committed — and they must have sufficient evidence. To be proactive, to recognize early when a child is in distress you have to be involved in their lives and fully committed to their well-being. And so child protective services can't be an effective substitute for caring, responsive parents.

Child abuse should not be addressed after the fact.

Prevention should be a primary focus.

What can be done?

Know the facts.

Child abuse is far more common than we'd like to believe. Exact statistics are impossible because so many cases don't come to light until the child has grown up. Just as with sexual abuse, in which as many as 1 in 3 girls has been molested in some way by the age of 16 — for boys it's one out of five — and 80 percent of cases are by family members or people involved in their lives — friends of the family, teachers, coaches, caregivers. The cases of habitual abuse, neglect and sexual molestation seriously disrupt normal, healthy child development are equally common. How can a child learn healthy relationships if they don't experience them?

Each case is different and each child responds in different ways. Some children are strong, some are fragile. But let's differentiate between imperfect parenting — that's a normal part of life — and interpersonal trauma.

Stop the mislabeling of children and adult survivors of child abuse with diagnoses of personality disorders or mental illness.

These diagnoses presume that all behavior problems are an inborn defect; they are an added burden to an already traumatized child. But even children who suffer terrible abuse survive through their resilience and determination to live. And these are signs of health!

I've seen neighborhood children as young as 3 and 4 taking on adult responsibilities because of a parent on drugs or alcohol. They weren't given the time or circumstances to develop a healthy life, but they are capable of partial or complete recovery if given a chance.

Break the cycle of abuse.

Child abuse is an intergenerational trauma. Recognize that most parents who abuse were themselves abused or seriously neglected. They are repeating what was done to them because that's what they know. They lack parenting skills, physical and emotional self-regulation; they certainly didn't develop secure attachment.

Unfortunately, our child protective systems are based on the adversarial approach and act after the fact. Just as jailing alcoholics without addressing their addiction didn't work, punishing abusive parents without addressing the trauma they themselves experienced in childhood cannot work.

(But systematic perpetrators who are comfortable and happy with what they are doing, who feel justified in what they do and who cover it up are something else).

Be proactive

Prevention is far more effective than picking up the pieces afterwards.

Discuss parenting with early teens — it should be part of sex education (i.e. the consequences).

Good parenting is not a theory — it's a practice. Working in child care where they can receive corrective guidance; a grandmother/mentor when they have their first child; expectations for guys to be responsible fathers.

Learn about early childhood development.

Children can be enormously resilient; "they are their own persons" from birth, but they can't raise themselves. They need one or preferably more people with whom they can establish an ongoing, healthy bond (called attachment) as a guide and a support to their development.

In the first year of a child's life the foundations for all future relationships are established through what they directly experience; the next 3-4 years build on it.

In the first year the human baby's brain doubles in volume!

In the first 18 months the "social brain" has its greatest development.

The first task of "mothering" is calming an infant in distress. This is the first step to self-regulation of all physiological systems and emotions.

We live in a time of loosened attachments and too many children virtually raising themselves.

Restore community

This subject would need another letter, but, briefly — Humans are social beings. Healthy people are not loners — we have always lived in community. Just as children can't raise themselves, parents need support systems in the extended family and the community.

This letter can't cover these issues in depth. But as a survivor these are the problems I've dealt with.

 

Daisy Swadesh is a Farmington resident.