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Opinion

Voices too small for us to hear

Child maltreatment is part of a complex, intertwined set of social issues that requires "multifaceted solutions".

Last Modified: 07 Mar 2013 12:35
Ellen Magnis

Ellen Magnis is chief of external affairs at the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center in Dallas, Texas, and an OpEd Project Public Voices fellow at Texas Woman's University.
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Abused children are "experts at hiding their pain, particularly when it is caused by someone they love" [Reuters]

For those who work outside of the world of child maltreatment and healing, violence against children mostly comes in small doses, almost like a whisper, and so we take it in and then move on unchanged - our tolerance too high or their voices too small for us to hear. There is no news coverage of most incidents. Most are oblivious to the anguish of many of our nation's children. 

Abused children are also experts at hiding their pain, particularly when it is caused by someone they love. In my own experience, I hid the scars until adulthood, instead opting to compartmentalise, minimise and pretend I wasn't affected by the abuse suffered at the hands of my step-father. I used to be haunted by memories of being dragged down the hallway by my hair, of being sexually violated in the presence of another, until these memories were given voice and processed, until they were made real by being told and grieved. 

It seems that we collectively as a nation only pay significant attention to violence against children when the media shines a light on a catastrophic event. Many stopped to pay attention for more than just a few minutes when tragedy struck Sandy Hook Elementary. Sometimes, because of the amount of media attention surrounding a particularly memorable story, we can individually call up the name of a child whose tragedy has made a particular imprint on us, children like Adam, Amber, or Caylee. These imprints are the exceptions. 

We are mostly ignorant to about 2,000 child homicides in the US each year. Just since the beginning of 2013, how many of us paid attention or even heard about Torrey, a 7-month-old found in a garbage bag, Alexis, a 28-month-old who died of severe brain trauma, or Jonah or Kendell, or countless others who looked into the eyes of their killer, a parent, as their young lives tragically ended? 

Of the approximate 2,000 children with a cause of death listed as "homicide" each year in our country, about 80 percent of them are younger than four years old, and about the same percentage of them are killed by a parent or parental figure.  

The National Child Death Review reports that most child maltreatment deaths are from head injuries or from internal bleeding due to abdominal trauma. Other children die from hot water immersion, smothering or drowning. Many children who die as a result of abuse have been physically abused over time.  

 Secret files show Boy Scouts covered up abuse

Risk factors for child fatalities include having a parent or caregiver under the age of 30; living in a low income, single-parent family experiencing major stresses; or substance abuse among caregivers. Another significant risk factor is a parent or caregiver with unrealistic expectations of child development.

As individuals in a community, we need to watch for ways to intervene, to support and to reach out to young mothers, single parents and those who have substance abuse challenges. We have to shore them up, support them. We have to believe that we are responsible for all of our community's children. We must listen. And we must respond.

Child maltreatment is part of a complex, intertwined set of social issues that requires multifaceted solutions. We have so many vulnerable children in vulnerable home environments where parents are addicted, disconnected or mentally ill. Our social safety nets are eroding. Many are hopeless and see no way out. We see palpable desperation, hunger, public school system decline and poverty. Cycles of violence and scarcity shroud many communities. All of this occurs in the underbelly of a nation of such wealth, such hope, such promise.

Our Child Protective Services system requires deep exploration and attention to reduce high turnover rates that leave vulnerable children even further in the gap. The annual turnover of child welfare caseworkers is between 30 and 40 percent, with the average duration of employment less than two years. What organisation can be successful and responsive with these metrics? We can absolutely do better here.  

Despite some great strides in coming together to improve some areas of our country with best practice models like Children's Advocacy Centres, where teams can compassionately respond to children who are suspected of being harmed, many communities still have no such model.

In our own Children's Advocacy Center, in addition to co-ordinating child homicide cases in our county, we hear the whispers, the stories, the cries of children who have been brutalised in ways that often shock even those with significant tenure. Each voice is filled with its own unique heartbreak. We helped 2,400 children last year, and this is, we know, just the tip of the iceberg, one of the reasons we recently moved into a new, much larger facility. Our clients are children who have been sexually abused, are so severely physically abused that they require hospitalisation, and children who have witnessed a violent crime.   

Roll up the numbers nationwide and more than 280,000 children were served in 750 Children's Advocacy Centres in 2012. Imagine if their collective voice, along with the voices of those 2,000 children who were murdered last year, could truly be heard. How powerful that voice could be.

We will acknowledge April as Child Abuse Awareness Month. In between now and then, take some time and learn about the epidemic of child maltreatment. Look for ways to support those who are trying to make a difference; look for ways to hear the cries and respond to the vulnerable children in your own community.

Ellen Magnis is chief of external affairs at the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center in Dallas, Texas, and an OpEd Project Public Voices fellow at Texas Woman's University. 

Follow her on Twitter: @EllenMagnis

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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