April is Child Abuse Prevention Month.
According to the federal government’s Administration for Children and Families, in 2009, more than 3 million children were reported as potential victims of maltreatment. This is despite significant declines in the numbers of substantiated child-abuse cases – declines in excess of 50 percent in the last two decades.
During 2009, there were an average of five children a day identified as fatal victims of maltreatment in the United States. That is not acceptable. Moreover, child maltreatment is preventable.
Child maltreatment includes physical abuse, physical neglect, verbal abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse. Some child victims are subjected to more than one type of abuse.
Child maltreatment is most commonly suffered at the hands of a family member, including a parent, sibling, relative or another member of the household.
There are a host of factors – internal and external – that contribute to child maltreatment. Many abusers were themselves abused as children and/or suffer from violence or physical intimidation as adults.
Abuse can exist in an environment corrupted by physical violence, such as in the context of domestic violence. Abuse may be even be justified by the perpetrator as an acceptable form of discipline. To be clear, while not all forms of physical discipline rise to the level of abuse, it is never appropriate to hit a child.
Social factors can also influence child maltreatment. Child neglect – defined as absence of sufficient nurturance or access to adequate clothing, nutrition, medical care, education or shelter to meet a child’s basic needs – may result from parental alcohol or drug abuse.
Alcohol also lowers inhibitions, leading to otherwise unintended abusive behaviors. Certain drugs such as methamphetamine may produce irritability or unstable behaviors during intoxication, and apathy thereafter.
Untreated mental illness among child caregivers may contribute to neglect or abuse, particularly when poor coping mechanisms are compounded by social stressors.
A parent’s financial, job and relationship stressors may lead to anger and frustration and result in a volatile home environment where there is less tolerance of otherwise normal child behaviors. Children with developmental or behavioral disorders are especially at risk in a home environment made more stressful by lack of stability and characterized by poor coping mechanisms.
Prevention includes interventions at both the community and individual level. Communities in which child and family-support programs collaborate can build a network of advocacy for both parent and child well-being. Schools, spiritual organizations and community groups (such as our local Family Center and Boys & Girls Club) can all play a role.
Recent federal legislation will expand long-term intervention programs for individual families such as home visitation by trained professionals.
Meanwhile, we must all play a role to stop child maltreatment in our community. Many child advocates such as medical providers and teachers are mandated to report cases of suspected abuse.
There is also support for caregivers amid of crisis through the toll-free National Parent Hotline at (855)-4A-PARENT or online at nationalparenthotline.com.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Health Center in Towaoc.