NO one wants to talk about child abuse. I know I didn’t.
As a child, I was sexually abused by my stepfather. I lived with the fear and degradation for years. And for years, I stayed silent. Today I am a proud and public survivor. I’m thankful for the people who cared about me and helped me heal.
Even when a highly publicized death of a child occurs — like the tragedy of NFL running back Adrian Peterson’s two-year-old son — we certainly sympathize, but we are not comfortable talking about the cause and prevention of abuse.
Peterson’s son died from injuries after an alleged assault by the boyfriend of the child’s mother, according to police. It is a sad fact that his death is not a rare occurrence. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 1,570 U.S. children died from abuse and neglect in 2011; 20 of those children lived in Washington state. Approximately 80 percent of children who die from abuse are under the age of 4.
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Hopefully, the Peterson story will serve to point out the role we all have in recognizing and reporting suspected abuse and neglect. But the role we all have in preventing it is just as important.
The relatively modest investment we make now in prevention will not only save lives and generations, but billions of dollars in social, welfare and criminal-justice costs. Prevent Child Abuse America, a national advocacy organization, estimates the direct and indirect costs of child abuse and neglect are well over $100 billion annually.
That’s because children who have been abused or neglected are more likely to have a host of problems later in life, including poor physical, emotional and mental health, difficulties in adult relationships, substance abuse, violence and aggression.
Yet with early treatment, young abuse victims can and do make remarkable strides. When treatment and education also embrace parents and guardians, the results are that much more dramatic. Research done locally by Childhaven studied children during their therapy and 12 years later as teenagers, and compared results to abuse victims who did not receive therapy. The research showed that the Childhaven children were six times less likely to have committed a violent juvenile crime, were better adjusted in school and less disruptive in classrooms, and two-and-a-half times less likely to abuse drugs.
As members of the great human village, we have an obligation to help not just children, but their struggling parents and guardians as well. We can reach out to that mom, dad or grandparent who’s overwhelmed. We can get involved in our schools and in community organizations. We can support programs that help at-risk children and their families.
The vast majority of the parents we see here at Childhaven love their children and want to be good parents, they just don’t know how; they never learned from their own mothers and fathers. Some were physically abused and neglected themselves. Some have experienced domestic violence, homelessness, and drug and alcohol addictions.
No one should ever, under any circumstances, hurt or neglect a child. But every parent, no matter his or her background or experience, knows how difficult parenting can be and how easy it is to reach the end of your rope and find yourself dangling.
We do not know the circumstances or details about what led to the death of Peterson’s son, or what could have been done to avoid this heartbreak. What I do know is a young child’s life has been cut needlessly short and thousands of other children are living in fear of what the day will bring. That’s why we need safety nets and spotters. It’s why we need everyone to care and do something about abuse and neglect — before one more tragedy occurs. It’s up to all of us.
Maria Chavez Wilcox is president of Childhaven, a 104-year-old Seattle nonprofit that provides therapeutic child care, treatment and parenting programs.