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By PATTI CLARK
Special to The News-Democrat
Consider for a minute the construction of a new building.
Potential new homeowners spend hours picking out the color of the paint, the type of light fixtures in each of the rooms, carpet and other flooring, even flowers for the landscaping outside.
Very little consideration is given to what’s underneath those items though. Homeowners assume that the walls will be straight, that the floor will be even, that the foundation will be strong enough to support the furniture and people inside.
Now, think about our kids. As parents, we talk about eye and hair color, we wonder who they will look like, whose personality they will have.
But how often do we consider their foundations? How often do we think about whether they are getting the positive interactions on a daily basis that ensure that their brains develop properly?
As our kids grow, their brain is being constructed, day-by-day, piece-by-piece. This process begins before birth and continues well into adulthood. The chemicals they encounter before birth – like drugs and alcohol – affect the foundations of their future existence. So does the amount of food – or lack of food if that’s the case – they receive as their body is trying to build itself.
And consider their emotional foundation. If our babies are nurtured, research shows they become nurturing adults. If they are neglected, they, in turn, neglect others. If they are abused, they tend to become abusers.
Brains – like houses – are built from the foundation up, one piece – one skill – at a time. If their foundations are strong, our children will become strong, resilient adults who contribute positively to our communities. If they aren’t, we all can read in the pages of the newspapers and hear on television the stories of those whose foundations were apparently missing key structural components that provided them strength for the long haul.
Just like a house, when it comes to nurturing a child into a productive member of society, it’s easier to get things right the first time than it is to fix the things that are broken later.
Doing just that is part of the mission and vision of the Champions for a Drug Free Carroll County. Many times, drug and alcohol abuse is connected to child abuse. Consider these statistics:
• 40 percent of all child abuse cases involve substance abuse.
• Nearly two-thirds of people receiving treatment for substance abuse report being abused or neglected as a child.
• Children who experience child abuse and neglect are 59 percent more likely to be arrested as a juvenile.
• Abused children are 25 percent more likely to become teen parents.
• 25 percent to 50 percent of all children experience some form of abuse during their childhood. That means if you know four or more children, there’s a strong likelihood that at least one or two of them have been abused.
• One out of every three girls and one out of every six boys will be sexually abused by the age of 18.
Last year, in Carroll County alone, there were 403 reported cases of suspected child abuse. Across the United States, there were more than three million. And of the reported cases, 90 percent of victims under the age of 12 knew their abuser.
Experts believe the reality is that three times as many cases as are reported actually exist. While only about 10 percent of the cases were substantiated locally – mainly because of the fact that children often don’t make good witnesses and they’ve been scared into believing someone they love will be hurt if they tell – these numbers show that the foundation of our society – the foundation of our future – isn’t receiving the loving, nurturing support they need to become happy, healthy adults often at the hands of people they are supposed to love and trust.
The estimated cost of child abuse across the United States each year is $104 billion – calculated as the cost of treating these children, providing alternative housing arrangements such as foster care, prosecuting their offenders and all the related pieces to the child abuse puzzle.
We must take action now to stop these consequences from affecting our kids – and our community – down the road. But the first step is understanding the problem.
First, let’s define abuse. Abuse is not spanking unless it’s administered in an out-of-control manner, but for the most part, any physical injury, sexual abuse or emotional abuse inflicted on a child other than by accident is considered abuse.
Notice, that definition includes emotional abuse, which is abuse that happens when love and care are consistently withheld from a child; when adults use derogatory words aimed at the child — think “You’re stupid;” “You aren’t worthy of my love;” You are worthless” – or when children are exposed to hurtful, negative interactions with adults who should know better.
How do you know if a child you know is being abused? Here are a few signs to watch out for:
• The child shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance. If a child is usually well behaved in school, church or in family and friend get-to-togethers, but is now disruptive – or vice versa – you can reasonably expect that something is going on in that child’s life that is inappropriate.
• The child doesn’t receive the physical or medical care for problems that have been identified by a medical or health professional.
• The child has learning problems that can’t be associated with known physical or psychological issues.
• The child is watchful or fretful, always fearing something bad will happen; they lack adult supervision; they are overly compliant, an overachiever or too responsible, or they come to school early, stay late and don’t want to go home.
Parents also exhibit signs when child abuse is occurring in the home. Consider that the situation needs to be looked into if the parent:
• Shows little concern for the child, rarely responding to the school’s requests for information, for conferences, or for home visits;
• Denies the existence of — or blames the child for — the child’s problems in school or at home;
• Asks the classroom teacher to use harsh physical discipline if the child misbehaves;
• Sees the child entirely bad, worthless or burdensome;
• Demands perfection or a level of physical or academic performance the child cannot achieve; or
• Looks primarily to the child for care, attention and satisfaction of emotional needs.
And the signs are even more obvious when the child and parent are together. They include:
• Rarely touching or looking at each other;
• Only seeing their relationship in a negative light.
• Stating that they don’t like each other.
While none of these signs proves that child abuse is present in a family, any of them may be indicators that something is happening in the relationship, especially when they appear repeatedly and in combination with each other. They are simply warning signs that indicate a closer look is warranted.
Only by being educated, by being aware of what is happening in the lives of the kids around us can we begin to bring a halt to this.
All over Carrollton for the past week, you may have seen trees with blue ribbons. Those ribbons symbolize the child abuse and neglect cases reported in Carroll County last year and are just a visible reminder of the issues we face right here in the community. Banners will be going up in various locations with statistics and other information about child abuse. You’ll see posters, and flyers. You’ll receive information in your churches.
On April 23, from 5-7:30 p.m. at the Courthouse in downtown, the Champions group will sponsor an event to increase awareness even more about the issues connected to child abuse, substance abuse and preventing both right here in Carroll County. There will be free food, the opportunity to win a Nintendo Wii system and fun activities for the entire family.
But more importantly, you’ll learn more about ways to spot the warning signs of child abuse and to prevent it in your family as well as in the families of the children in your life. Because building strong foundations in our kids is important in creating a strong foundation for our community.
Won’t you join us? Do it for that important child in your life.
Patti Clark is a member of Champions for a Drug Free Carroll County