By Melody Pillow, PHS medical social worker
This month we raise awareness of maltreatment of one of our most vulnerable populations: our children. Maltreatment defines almost all forms of violence against children, including exploitation, physical and mental violence, sexual abuse and neglect. This awareness month is a call to action to encourage the nation to recommit to the safety of children, and its proclamation stated children’s rights: Every child needs a chance to grow up in a safe, stable, and nurturing environment free from abuse and neglect.
According to statistics from Child Trends, a study conducted from 1990 to 2014 estimated that American Indian/Alaska Native children have higher rates of maltreatment than other children. As you can see by the chart, in 2016 the reported maltreatment rate for non-Hispanic black, and American Indian/Alaska Native children was 14 per 1,000 children, and 11 per 1,000 for non-Hispanic children of two or more races.
We can help children by first ensuring that everyone—adult caregivers and providers, parents, educators, pediatricians, community leaders—who interacts with children understands mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect laws, and support programs like Family Spirit, Healthy Start and other researched-based models that focus on child abuse prevention. Ultimately, by using trauma-informed interventions like the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) tool we can assess and treat trauma.
Parents are the main perpetrators of child maltreatment; reports show that nearly four out of five abusers are parents. Why is this? There are many social, psychological, and financial factors involved in child abuse and neglect such as: parental mental illness, substance use, divorce, incarceration, and domestic violence. A landmark study in the 1990s found a significant relationship between the number of adverse childhood experiences a person experienced and a variety of negative outcomes in adulthood. As you can see by the ACE Pyramid, these outcomes can cause a myriad of health issues, including poor physical and mental health, substance abuse, risky behaviors, and even premature death. The more ACEs experienced, the greater the risk for these outcomes.
Awareness of child abuse and neglect is a hard subject to address. The good news is that child maltreatment is a preventable problem. We must implement research-informed systems to support families to prevent trauma from child neglect and abuse and to better respond to trauma that does occur. Our current systems tend to be reactionary rather than preventative. To properly respond to the needs of our children, we must understand and recognize the causes of trauma and engage families and communities in healing. All agencies and people that deal with the livelihoods of children must adopt guidelines and procedures that support families.