By DIANE BULLARD
As one enters the State House in Columbia, a brightly colored brochure stands out on a table with the headline: “Forty-eighth and Falling.” Open the brochure, and one is faced with the horrifying reality of South Carolina’s national ranking in regard to child-wellness — 48th in the nation — followed only by the states of Louisiana and Mississippi.
The South Carolina Department of Social Services reports that 20,257 reports of child maltreatment involving over 45,000 children were made in the last year. More than three million child maltreatment reports were made nationally to authorities. News reports gained the whole world’s attention when Susan Smith plunged her children into a lake to their death. Only a few months ago national attention grew once again when a report was made of a woman throwing her child from a moving car on Interstate 95. However, as the new media covers the most public of child maltreatment cases, three children quietly and senselessly die each day in America due to child abuse and neglect.
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 of refuses to provide enough food, clothing, shelter, supervision, or medical attention to children — none of which can be the product of an angry child.
No one factor can account for child maltreatment, but some causes have 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 lack of suitable child care, 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.
We are each called to save South Carolina’s children. Pope John Paul II said in Familaris Consortio, “In the Christian view, our treatment of children becomes a measure of our fidelity to the Lord himself.” The people of the Diocese of Charleston are addressing the issue in varying programs throughout the state. Many programs, such as St. Ann Outreach Center in Kingstree and St. Cyprian’s Outreach Center in Georgetown, focus on programs designed to meet the needs of children and families. Prevention programs that work to battle against the societal stresses are teaching children how to cope and thrive in today’s world.
Every parishioner in the diocese comes in daily contact with abused children while attending Mass, neighborhood activities, grocery stores, school functions and at every place where children gather. When concerns about an individual child are noticed, one should not wait to investigate or to 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.
Every individual has the ability and the responsibility to become a voice for a maltreated child 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-SC CARES. Catholic Charities is available to help you or your parish to develop church-based child advocacy programs. Regional offices are located throughout the state. Churches can actively work to save our children be offering basic education about child maltreatment, parents and community support systems. Today’s world dictates that churches and schools need to teach our children about self-protection and how to remain safe.
Becoming a child advocate is not easy. It means offering to baby-sit for the child who is left alone in your neighborhood after school. It means offering to carry the grocery bags for a frustrated stranger whose child is having a temper tantrum. It means quietly slipping the school counselor an extra pair of mittens during the next cold spell for the child without warmth. It means realizing that every time you show your own child your love by taking care of specific needs like book covers, field trip fees, a new coat and vitamins, there is a child who is being deprived of that need — then, figuring out how to reach out and help address that need.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Now, more than ever, it is vital for individuals and church communities here in South Carolina to become advocates for children who are abused and neglected. We are all challenged by our faith to make a personal commitment to eliminate South Carolina’s badge of “forty-eighth and falling.”
Diane Bullard is regional coordinator of Catholic Charities in the Pee Dee Deanery.