Child abuse is one of those subjects that we don't talk about much. For many people, just hearing the words makes us feel sick inside. But the only way to change what's happening is to talk about it-a lot.
In 2011, South Dakota had 1,353 children who were victims of abuse or neglect, a rate of 6.7 per 1,000 children. Of these children, 94.2 percent were neglected, 12.6 percent were physically abused, 4.7 percent were sexually abused and 1 percent were psychologically maltreated, according to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.
The report goes on to say that of the 1,353 children, 661 were boys, 691 were girls and 1 was of unknown sex. As I read and re-read information like this, what turns my stomach most are these numbers-986 of the 1,353 children were "first-time" victims, meaning no previous abuse had been reported. How could we have prevented this? And how could we have prevented 386 children from being abused a second, third or fourth time?
Child abuse is more than bruises and broken bones. While physical abuse might be the most visible, other types of abuse, such as emotional abuse and neglect, also leave deep, lasting scars. The sooner abused children get help, the greater chance they have to heal and break the cycle rather than perpetuate it.
However, only 1 in 10 children report the abuse themselves. Those children who keep the abuse a secret or who tell and are not believed are far more likely to suffer psychological, emotional, social and/or physical problems that will most likely follow them into adulthood.
When children are abused or neglected, they are in a constant state of stress. In the absence of supportive relationships to help buffer the stress, they can have a toxic stress reaction. When this happens, harmful chemicals flood the child's brain and body, causing damage to the developing brain architecture and disrupting normal child development. This leaves children vulnerable, causing many of them to adopt risky social and health behaviors, such as smoking, sexual promiscuity at an early age and illegal drug and alcohol use, among others. These risky behaviors lead to poor physical, emotional and mental health, and even early death.
Most likely, you know a child who either has been or is being abused. By learning about common signs of abuse and what you can do to intervene, you can make a huge difference in a child's life.
1. Learn the facts and understand the risks. Realities-not trust-should influence your decisions regarding children in your life.
2. Minimize opportunities. If you eliminate or reduce one-adult/one-child situations, you will dramatically lower the risk of sexual abuse for your child.
3. Talk about it. Children often keep abuse a secret, but barriers can be broken down by talking openly about it.
4. Stay alert. Don't expect obvious signs when a child is being sexually abused. Signs are often there, but you have to spot them.
Physical signs are not common, but emotional or behavioral signals, such as being "too perfect," withdrawal and depression, or unexplained anger and rebellion can all be signs of abuse.
5. Make a plan. Learn where to go, who to call and how to react
Don't over react, because it will often cause a child to shut down or change his/her story. Believe in the child and make sure he/she knows that. Assure that child that it's your job to protect him/her.
6. Act on suspicions. A child's well-being may depend on it. Many of us do not trust our "gut feelings," even though they are most often right. A child cannot afford for you to take the chance that your gut is wrong.
7. Get involved. Use your voice and your vote (children do not have this right) to make our community and state a safer place for children.
Children thrive on nurturing, supportive relationships and interactions with the adults in their lives. Like the process of serve and return in a game of tennis, children of all ages naturally reach out to the adults in their lives. When those adults respond in a caring, nurturing and supportive way, children flourish.
Together we can stop abuse and change the future of our children.