“From a very early age, people did things to me. I don’t know if they singled me out or if I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I do know that, almost from the beginning of life as I knew it, things were done to me. As I grew older, I began to realize that the things that were being done to me were bad, but I was powerless to stop them or to get away from them. So ‘life’ continued to happen, and I kept living as best I knew. Life was not always easy.” — from the book Healing Neen by Tonier Cain
Child abuse and neglect are topics that many people might try to avoid thinking about. This happens for good reason: not only are they deeply unpleasant subjects, but we may also feel powerless to do anything about them. But not thinking about abuse is a luxury that survivors of abuse do not have, because it often affects their lives negatively for years or decades afterward.
Consider the story of Tonier Cain, who as a young girl suffered continual abuse in many different forms. As an adult, she struggled with substance use and addiction, worked in prostitution to make ends meet, and was arrested more than 80 times over 15 years. It was only after she received treatment for her childhood trauma that she was able to end this destructive cycle and recover from the abuse she experienced. Today, Cain is an internationally-recognized expert on trauma informed care and recovery from abuse.
As Cain’s story illustrates, the consequences of child abuse can be extreme. That’s why it’s important for everyone to understand the signs of abuse and know how to prevent it from occurring. Most of all, we must be brave enough to talk about abuse so that we can do our part to help reduce it. According to Ashlee Prewitt, our Director of Specialty Programs,
“A lot of times our society shies away from having conversations about abuse because we’re scared of what’s going on and what the reality looks like. It is very, very important that we have this conversation, and that we’re not scared to talk about abuse, whether it’s physical abuse, sexual abuse or mental abuse.”
Defining Abuse: Statistics and Common Warning Signs
When talking about child abuse and neglect, which are sometimes combined into the term “child maltreatment,” it’s important to understand how these terms are defined.
Each U.S. state has its own definitions of child abuse and neglect based on standards set by federal law. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, first signed into law in 1974, defines child abuse and neglect as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”
According to the 2019 Child Maltreatment Report from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Children’s Bureau, there were 656,000 reported victims of child abuse in the U.S. in 2019. This equates to 8.9 victims per 1,000 children in the population. However, since many instances of child maltreatment go unreported, the CDC estimates that the true number of victims each year may be closer to 1 in 7 children, or 10.5 million individuals.
Abusive or neglectful behavior comes in many different forms, but there are several common symptoms of maltreatment that care professionals look for. These include:
- The child has unexplained bruises on their body, especially on areas like the buttocks, face, neck, and backs of legs.
- The child has unexplained lacerations, abrasions, burns, bleeding, or other injuries.
- The child has oral or dental injuries.
- The child seems depressed or appears to suffer from low self-esteem.
- The child seems excessively eager to please or appears to be frightened of their caretaker.
- The child is easily startled and has an exaggerated startle response.
- The child is frequently absent from school.
- The caretaker talks about the child in a consistently negative manner.
- The caretaker conceals the child’s injuries or becomes defensive when questioned about them.
- The caretaker is known to be a harsh disciplinarian.
- The caretaker is known to have problems with substance use.
Why Prevention Works to Eliminate Abuse
If a child is discovered to be living in an abusive environment, intervention services such as those provided by the Indiana Department of Child Services can be of tremendous help. The child can receive physical and psychological care and be placed in a safe environment until their caretaker can be rehabilitated, or until a new caretaker can be found for them. These actions can minimize the harm done to the child. Unfortunately, intervention efforts cannot undue any harm that the child has already suffered.
On the other hand, prevention efforts can stop this harm from occurring in the first place. For example, home visiting programs for new parents are more effective at preventing child maltreatment than interventions that seek to change abusive behaviors. Prevention programs aimed at children can even help them understand what maltreatment looks like and feel more confident about disclosing abuse if it occurs.
According to the Children’s Bureau, effective prevention of child abuse and neglect operates on five different levels:
- Society: when effective, our society at large encourages positive parenting practices, enacts government policies that are supportive of families, and extends these policies equitably to all families
- System: when effective, our public health system assesses the needs of communities through data collection and analysis, collaborates with community stakeholders on prevention initiatives, and enacts prevention strategies that are directed at the general population
- Organization: when effective, public health organizations provide support to caregivers as well as children, implement trauma-informed care practices, and understand the protective effects of positive childhood experiences
- Community: when effective, family support agencies value input from community members when implementing prevention programs, and they seek to grow authentic partnerships with parents, caregivers and youth in their community
- Family: when effective, individual families are characterized by the protective factors of nurturing and attachment, knowledge of parenting, parental resilience, social connections, concrete support, and social/emotional competence
When prevention efforts are effective at all five levels for a particular child, their risk of experiencing abuse or neglect is dramatically reduced.
Tools, Resources, and Ways to Get Involved in Child Abuse Prevention
There are a variety of ways that anyone can get involved to help prevent child abuse and neglect in their community.
First and foremost, if you know a child who you believe to be experiencing maltreatment, we encourage you to call the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 1-800-800-5556. Indiana is a mandatory reporting state, which means that anyone who suspects a child is being abused is legally obligated to report it. DCS is required by law to keep the names and contact information of report filers confidential, so no one else will know if you report a tip.
If you are a caretaker in need of child support services, the Indiana DCS website can help you find any resources or assistance you require. On the other hand, if you might be interested in adopting a child or becoming a foster parent, you can also investigate these options on the DCS website. Or if you’d just like more information and resources for preventing child abuse, you can visit the Children’s Bureau’s website for National Child Abuse Prevention Month, including its comprehensive Resource Guide and Conversation Guides for caregivers.
If you’d like to support an organization that works toward child abuse prevention, then Prevent Child Abuse America is a great place to start. You can visit the website of the Indiana chapter if you’d like to donate, volunteer, or join the Local Council. In addition, Darkness to Light is another organization you could support that focuses specifically on prevention of child sexual abuse.
Finally, there are several events happening in Indiana for Child Abuse Prevention Month that you can participate in if you are interested:
- 15th Annual Matt Breman Memorial Run 4Kids — April 24th. This family-friendly 4K walk/run on the downtown Indianapolis canal will help raise vital
funds and awareness for Child Abuse Prevention in Indiana. You may attend in person or join virtually. More details here.
- Darkness to Light National Prevention Conference — April 27th–29th. This virtual conference will engage attendees on a national level to equip, strengthen, and organize their child sexual abuse prevention initiatives as well as provide advanced training, thought-provoking interactive sessions, and help individuals and organizations bring back fresh ideas to their communities. More details here.
- Plant a Virtual Pinwheel Garden — all month. Purchase and plant a virtual pinwheel in a digital pinwheel garden! Customize your pinwheel
by changing the color or adding a message. Click here to participate.