April 19, 2014

Let's do more to stop April being National Child Abuse Prevention Month

Note: The following is adapted from a newspaper column.

This is April, which means it’s National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

I didn’t do so last year, because I was new to my current newspaper setting, but it’s been a tradition of mine to write one or more columns every month about this issue, primarily about child sexual abuse.

First, I know that this is an uncomfortable topic. And rightly so. Nobody likes to think of the most vulnerable members of our society being abused like this before they’ve had a chance to grow up. But, only by addressing this issue in reality can we hope to translate the pain of that discomfort into reality.

Second, there are myths about child sexual abuse as well as realities. And part of addressing this issue, and reducing it (unfortunately, we will surely never eliminate it) is looking at the realities not the myths.

Some realities are hard to come by. Many victims don’t talk about, let alone legally report, their abuse even after entering adulthood. The pain, as well as the shame, of child sexual abuse, are both reasons why.

That word “shame” is as good a starting point as any for talking about some of the realities.

The shame is there in part because counselors tell us that child victims often believe they did something to cause the abuse, even though that’s not true. It’s often the only way a younger child, especially, can try to make sense of the inexplicable.

Sadly, the shame is also often there for another reason. Exact percentages are pretty much impossible to come by, but “stranger danger” child sexual assaults are a clear minority. Again, without exact percentages being available, perpetrators are normally known to their victims, and often known well, whether as trusted friends of the family, or as family members. A lot of child sexual abuse, because of this, happens at the residence of the victim or the perpetrator.

Girls are more often the victim of child sexual abuse than boys, but boys are a significant minority of victims. And, while men make up the vast majority of perpetrators, women are also sometimes abusers.

Child sexual abuse can include exhibitionism and display of pornography to victims, as well as more graphic physical acts. In some cases, one child may have severe reactions to one incident of abuse than another child does to multiple instances.

Children that come from broken homes or other unstable situations are generally more vulnerable to the effects of child sexual abuse, as are younger children. And, because poverty rates run higher, and stable family lives run lower, among minorities, that means that sexual abuse runs higher there, in general, along with its effects.

And, those effects are great. Childhood and adult depression, other mental health problems, drug addiction and alcoholism, teen pregnancy, children running away from home or dropping out of school can all hurt, even shatter, lives.

Children aren’t perfect, and can tell fibs, or have imaginary friends, even at younger ages.

But, when a child shows signs of depression or anxiety, let alone when a child has sexual-related comments or actions inappropriate to his or her age, that child’s behavior should be looked at with total seriousness. Even more so, when a child makes a comment about a certain adult’s behavior, the child should be listened to in all seriousness.

Doing everything we can to address social situations that may influence the likelihood of child sexual abuse — and physical and emotional abuse — is something else we need to treat with all due seriousness, too.

That includes income raises, and jobs with a better sense of security. In turn, that's yet another reason to address income inequality issues in America.

Beyond that, this includes doing what we can as a society to promote better parenting.

When we fail to prevent the abuse, it means doing a better job of counseling victims, whether as children or those who come forward much later as adults.

It also includes walking a fine line on the issue of old memories. Memories may not be “repressed,” as some researchers almost stereotype some claims, and as some counselors believe, and try to “induce” them to come back to life. That's especially true because not all allegedly false memories are totally false; rather, a fair amount are conflated or blended from two or more true memories.

However, sexual abuse victims can, and do, “detach” from their memories. I don’t care what exact terminology one wants to use, cases where this does happen clearly exist. And, any adult or child who does claim such memories without undue prompting from a counselor should be taken seriously.

No comments: