Last month, Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital released an outstanding, optimistic, and solution-oriented video about child abuse, which they define as physical, sexual, verbal abuse and domestic violence.
What makes the video so strong are the stories told by three very brave people:
- Amanda Marsh, who was sexually abused by her stepfather from the time she was 13 to 17 years old. She and her sister eventually reported him, and he is now in prison.
- Crystal Risely, physically and sexually abused by her physician father from infancy until she was 22 years old, molested by a teacher when she was 12, and molested by a principal when she was 16.
- One man who was physically abused by his father from infancy until he was 16 years old. It ended when he left home. In the video, he prefers to remain anonymous.
Dr. Clare Sheridan-Matney, director of the division of
forensic patients at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital; Dr. Kiti Freir Randall, pediatric neurodevelopmental psychologist; and Marie Dawson, coordinator of the hospital’s Child Protection Center; and Mary Jo Vollmer-Sandholm, forensic pediatric nurse practitioner provide good background information about the frequency of child abuse and the long-term consequences of adverse childhood experiences. Dr. Vincent Felitti, one of the co-principal investigators of the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), also appears in the video.
The only place where this video falls down is in the recommendations of what to do if you see abuse or you are being abused: Call the police or child protective services, leave the unsafe situation, find a safe place to go, tell someone you trust.
I can think of so many situations in which none of the options are viable. This is not a failing of Loma Linda, but more in the fact that our society doesn’t yet know how to deal with child maltreatment. You’d think that at least the last one — tell someone you trust — would be the easiest. But I don’t think enough people talk about child maltreatment so that someone who sees or experiences abuse would feel comfortable talking, or, having said something to someone once, pursue it if nothing happens. If you doubt that, just think about Penn State, abuse by priests and nuns in the Catholic Church, and by Boy Scout leaders.
The video ends rightly with a pitch for increasing awareness of the problem and talking more about it. “It’s the secrecy and the shame that goes along with this that often keeps this problem continuing,” said Dr. William Murdoch, chair of Loma Linda University Department of Psychiatry. “We don’t talk about it. It’s something that we don’t want to believe happens next door. It does.”
If child maltreatment were regarded the same way as a broken leg — something serious that needs fixing — that would certainly give people more options. Our shame/blame/punishment system, however, usually requires that parents (who are responsible for most child maltreatment) are labeled as “bad” so that a child may be “rescued” and removed from the home, which just causes more toxic stress for everyone involved.
A healthier system would be one where we can talk about child toxic stress and maltreatment in terms of an entire family who desperately needs help, and talk about it openly enough so that a family is helped long before child abuse escalates.
Vollmer-Sandholm said it well: “It seems, unfortunately, that in just about every segment of our society, people will avoid talking about the topic of abuse. They say you can’t ask those questions in a medical office. And when it comes to churches and schools and other community groups, people would just rather not think about it.”
That’s ironic, considering that most of us have experience at least one type of adverse childhood experience.