By DIANE C. BULLARD
The nation recognizes April as Child Abuse Prevention Month with mixed emotions as it is faced with the reality of record high numbers of abused children.
The Children’s Defense Fund reports that during the year 1996, three American children died daily due to child abuse and neglect. Every 10 seconds, a child in America is reported for being abused. South Carolina is not exempt from the shameful problem as 21,2000 reports involving 48,000 children were made during the past year.
This number does not reflect the thousands of children already placed in the state’s foster care system. South Carolina ranks 46th in the nation in regards to the well-being of its children. In the wake of drastic changes in the state’s welfare system, cuts to federally supported programs, and an ever-increasing reliance upon the public school system to provide social support services to families, churches and helping agencies are left with the burden of picking up the pieces of families in crisis so that our children might survive and become productive citizens.
Child abuse is categorized in four general areas: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. Television talk shows and horror stories spread fear that any angry child can turn parents in for abuse when, in reality, this is not the case.
Studies of reported cases show that children reported for physical abuse generally carry a long pattern of injuries and have a history of displayed symptoms. Because of stringent guidelines and difficulty of proof, only a small number of cases are actually handled as mental injury or emotional abuse. Neglect, the most common abuse reported, occurs when a parent neglects or refuses to provide enough food, clothing, shelter, supervision, or medical attention to children
No one factor can account for child maltreatment, but some causes have their roots in the basic fabric of society such as economic stresses, the acceptance of violence in society, substance abuse, and the lack of social support such as the absence of suitable childcare, an increase in single parent homes, and the breakdown of extended family support systems.
No matter the cause, the effects are devastating. Follow-up studies show that abuse and neglect can result in damage to a child’s cognitive development, academic development, and the development of proper social and decision-making skills. These children are more apt to be involved in violent crimes, truancy, substance abuse, suicide, and other self-destructive behavior. Abused and neglected children, after being taught inappropriate parenting skills by their own parents, are more apt to grow up to become abusers of their own children.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Charleston addresses such problems through its advocacy efforts. Other programs, such as St. Ann Outreach Center in Kingstree and St. Cyprian’s Outreach Center in Georgetown, focus on programs specially designed to meet the needs of children and families. Prevention programs that work to battle against the societal stresses teach children how to cope and strive in today’s world.
Now, more than ever, it is vital that churches become involved in the development and implementation of community-based prevention programs. Churches that work in collaboration with schools and helping agencies will provide sound support during this age of government cut-backs and “fast fixes.”
Every concerned individual has the ability to make a difference just by picking up the phone to become involved. The Council on Child Abuse and Neglect can offer advice on making a difference in local communities and can be reached at their Columbia office at 1-800-722-2737. When concerns about a child are noticed, an individual should not wait to investigate or find proof of abuse. One should reach out to help that child by making a report to the local Department of Social Services. Social service professionals are well-trained in identifying the signs of abuse and neglect and will not indicate a case unless they find real evidence. Calls can remain anonymous and may mean the difference between life and death.
Pope John Paul II said in Familiaris Consortio, “In the Christian view, our treatment of children becomes a measure of our fidelity to the Lord himself.” The Catholic community is challenged to continue the ministry of Jesus through advocacy efforts on behalf of children. Making a personal commitment to stand as a voice for children is the first step in eliminating our nation’s greatest crime, its neglect to protect its children at all costs.
(Diane Bullard is regional coordinator of the Pee Dee office of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Charleston.)