From abuse to adoption: Three sisters share their stories

AhappyMy girls were removed from their biological family due to longstanding neglect and significant physical and sexual abuse. They are now 7, 8, and 10 years old and each of them has an Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) score of 10 (out of 10). (Got Your ACE Score?) This is the only test they have all aced. Many labeled them “damaged beyond repair”.

Over the last two years, my family has spent countless hours in individual and family therapy making sense of our own stories, learning how to cope with them, and building the strength required to share our stories outside of our family. And in understanding, embracing, and sharing their stories, our girls are proving that it is possible to overcome the negative effects of a traumatic childhood. Strengthening

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Kamala Harris’ Bureau of Children’s Justice takes shape

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California Attorney General Kamala Harris flanked by child advocates during Feb. 12 press conference announcing new Bureau of Children’s Justice.

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By Daniel Heimpel

On Feb. 12, California Attorney General Kamala Harris held a press conference in Los Angeles to announce the creation of a Bureau of Children’s Justice. Its goals range from reducing truancy and combatting childhood trauma, to improving the foster care and juvenile justice systems.

While the mandate Harris outlined was broad, members of the bureau’s new staff said that this was by design. Aside from a handful of specific issues, the office is currently in reconnaissance mode, gathering ideas on improvements to education, juvenile justice and child welfare that it can champion.

“We aim to work with a wide range of stakeholders to find accountability and enforcement gaps,” said Jill Habig, a special assistant attorney general leading the bureau, “which is why we invited over 150 stakeholders to convenings held across the state following the launch of the bureau.”

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The “Still Face” video still packs an emotional wallop

When the Washington Post carried a story by Brigid Schulte about the new Institute of Medicine report New Directions In Child Abuse and Neglect Research, Ed Tronick, Ph.D., psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, wrote to her about his research and shared a link to the “Still Face” experiment video. In a recent blog post, Schulte’s reaction to the two-minute video was similar to Jane Stevens’ on this site just about a year ago: It is very hard to watch the infant’s distress build as her mother maintains a “still face” and there is a feeling of deep relief when the young mother returns to her normal expressive self.

While the video packs a wallop, it is still difficult to even begin to fathom the profound impact of child neglect (to say nothing of abuse), according to Schulte. A year ago the video had been viewed over 700,000 times and today that number has risen to well over a million.

Schulte reports that Ed Tronick and others have

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Sexual abuse of nine-year old “Boarding School Boy”: Edward M. Kennedy’s childhood trauma

toughbkIn his book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough mentions that both John and Robert Kennedy attended Riverdale Country School in the Bronx as he introduces the reader to the character initiative of the Riverdale’s headmaster Dominic Randolph. I remembered that Senator Edward M. Kennedy also attended Riverdale and was drawn to re-read the account of his time there in his memoir True Compass. In 1941 when Ted Kennedy was nine

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The (inextricable) Link: Animal abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse

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“Over the past 30 years, researchers and professionals in a variety of human services and animal welfare disciplines have established significant correlations between animal abuse, child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, elder abuse and other forms of violence. Mistreating animals is no longer seen as an isolated incident that can be ignored: it is often an indicator or predictor crime and a “red flag” warning sign that other family members in the household may not be safe. We call this species-spanning interconnectedness of different forms of violence The Link.”

So states The National Link Coalition, which was created in 2008. “…Over 100 dedicated authorities, advocates and researchers representing a diverse array of animal protection, domestic violence, child maltreatment and elder abuse disciplines came together at a unique Town Meeting and National Summit in Portland, Maine.”  Their “goal was to build greater awareness of how these forms of family and community violence are interconnected…and to build successful programs whereby agencies in these fields can cross-report and cross-train each other for more effective prevention of violence.”

This relatively new field of research has uncovered some grim statistics. PAWS in Washington State outlines some striking

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Child abuse affects genes

Picture 12While adding info to this blog’s resources and research sections today, I found “Abuse affects genes”, an article by Brona McVittie on the Epigenetics? site. The site is put together by The Epigenome Network of Excellence, a European research network that focuses on epigenetics. Epigenetics looks at how our experiences and our environment turn our genes on and off. Yes — it’s an amazing thought, isn’t it. The genes we’re born with don’t set our personalities and behavior in stone. It’s all those experiences — our family life, our school life, our country’s life (war or peace?), our economic life (extreme poverty or jet-setter), our environment.

Epigenome means “above” or “in addition to”  the genome. We all have genes, which have all the code and instructions for how our bodies function. But not all of those genes are functioning all of the time. Our epigenome tells our genes what to do and when to do it. (For more info, go to this blog’s resources section.)

The article describes what researchers at McGill University and the Douglas Institute in Canada found when they compared the brains of 12 suicide victims who’d suffered child abuse, 12 suicide victims who weren’t abused, and 12 normal individuals. They looked at the genes that affect a person’s ability to cope with stress. They found differences between the same genes in the abuse victims and those not abused — the genes weren’t different, but the epigenetic marks on the genes were different. [How this works is shown in a fabulous animation — specifically the second part of the five parts — put together by the folks at NOVA, who have produced an episode about epigenetics:  Ghost in Your Genes. A shorter version is on NOVA’s Science Now.]

What’s important about this? Previous research shows that if these genes don’t function correctly, they can’t keep  stress hormones under control. So, the study suggests this scenario: Children suffer abuse, their nervous systems responds appropriately by producing stress hormones (fight, flight or freeze). But continued abuse without relief produces way too much stress hormone, which sets off something that significantly slows or stifles the genes that sop up those stress hormone. Too much stress keeps a person in a state of anxiety, fear, nervousness, agitation, or rage mixed with depression. One reason people commit suicide is because they feel they can no longer cope with these unrelenting overwhelming feelings over which they feel they have no control.

“The function of our DNA is not as fixed as previously thought,” adds Michael Meaney (Douglas Institute, Quebec). “The interaction between genes and the environment plays a crucial role in determining our resistance to stress and the risk for suicide. Epigenetic marks are the product of this interaction.”

In another article, one of the researchers, Moshe Szyf, a professor of pharmacolog at McGill University, said:

this study is the first that he knew of in which there is a clear link between human social environments and their epigenetic code. “It is dynamic, and it acts through life,” he says. “And it’s not just chemicals that affect these mechanisms, it’s the social, and even political, environment.”

The study was published in the Feb. 22, 2009 issue of Nature Neuroscience.

Cucumbers: a cure for parents who spank kids?

In the last month, a couple of articles about spanking caught my eye: One was at CNN.com — “Spanking Detrimental to Children, Study Says” by Elizabeth Landau. The other — “Kids Who Get Spanked May Have Lower IQs” by Salynn Boyles — was published by WebMD.com.

The first one showed that spanking may harm a child’s behavior and mental development. The other described two studies that showed that spanking may cause children — no matter what country they grow up in — to have lower intelligence scores.

In some cultures and families, it’s okay to hit children. In the United States, it’s a common practice. The articles got me to thinking about an incident that occurred while I was living in Bali, Indonesia, in the early 1990s. There, a family who livedcucumber adjacent to me provided a completely different point of view.

One evening, this Balinese couple and their two children had just returned from a visit to the United States. The following morning, I could hear the seven-year-old boy fussing loudly. (In Ubud, where I was living, the walls of houses are often made of bamboo.) Obviously jet-lagged and exhausted from the 20-hour flight, he was tired, cranky, and didn’t want to go to school. His father, Made (pronounced MAH-day), was also jet-lagged and tired. The boy cried and complained. Made raised his voice. The boy complained some more, and then I heard an unusual sound for Bali: fwaap! Made had smacked his kid. Not hard, but smacked him nonetheless. The boy wailed the tears of the betrayed, not in pain, but in sorrow and confusion.

Later that day, my friend saw Made sitting on a rock outside the compound of homes where we all lived. He looked dejected, as if he’d lost his best friend. He was eating a cucumber. My friend couldn’t help but ask: “Made, are you all right?”

Made nodded and then shook his head. “I did a horrible thing today,” he said.

We could guess what he’d done, but, being polite, my friend asked, “What happened?”

Made lowered his head in shame. “I hit my child today.”

We didn’t know how to respond.

“So I went to the doctor,” Made continued.

Doctor? “You went to the doctor?” my friend asked. “What did the doctor say?”

“He told me to stop eating meat for three weeks, and to eat three cucumbers a day.”

Well. Sure, meats contain androgens, and cucumbers contain estrogens, but not enough to change a person’s behavior. And the doctor probably knew that.

But the point of going to the doctor is that Made recognized that he was the one who’d been out of control, not his son. Children, being children, don’t have much ability to control themselves, especially when they’re stressed. But adults do. So when a child is stressed and cries, it’s the adult’s responsibility to keep his or her cool and help the child. And if the adult doesn’t keep his cool, in Bali, he seeks help immediately. And receives it.

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