A million years ago when the Precious Jewels were very young, I was like many other working mothers, stressed and exhausted most of the time. I recognized that our children were my main responsibility, but they were not my only responsibility, a reality that often left me overwhelmed. One afternoon when a shrieking toddler refused to go down for a nap he and I both desperately needed, I picked him up and plopped him into his crib with such force the child actually bounced!
I was so shocked at myself that I fled his room, shutting the door behind me while he wailed, no doubt flinging the toddler equivalent of curses in my direction. My first thought was how could I possibly have manhandled my precious child that way. My second was the realization is that this is how child abuse begins and too often escalates into something hideous.
How often have we heard a parent, or a parent’s significant other, say, “He was crying, and I just couldn’t stand it anymore?” Shaken Baby Syndrome, which often results in permanent brain damage, is associated with such statements. Sometimes the damage is not physical, but mental and emotional. Statements like, “I could not help it. She was flirting with me,” are associated with sexual abuse. Sometimes it is all of the above, and abusers either cannot or do not bother to justify their behaviors. However it occurs, abuse of a child is a crime that keeps on giving for decades, for a lifetime. A quick look at memoirs in any library will confirm that sad fact.
Nothing erases child abuse, but children can be helped to deal with what has occurred in their lives through competent, caring and trained intervention. Cumberland County and our surrounding neighbors are blessed with just such a place for children, the Child Advocacy Center. When child abuse is discovered, the CAC integrates services for that child — medical, psychological, legal and social so that the child, especially very young ones, do not have to relate their traumatic stories time and time again in all sorts of different environments. It coordinates continuing services, particularly important for children who have been removed from their families and for whom stability and continuity are critical issues. This coordinated approach saves our community about half a million dollars a year and saves children heartache.
All of that is the good news.
The bad news is that 661 children had need of CAC’s services last year, and there are surely others who could benefit from them but have not, because the abuse has yet to be detected by caring adults or reported by brave ones.
I asked CAC staff to tell me about some of the children whom they have served. Obviously, privacy is paramount, but here are three real stories.
“I (CAC staff) received a call one afternoon … She was in tears and shared with me that her mother got rid of her cat while she was at school. She was not sure what mother had done with her cat but said her mother hated the cat. I listened to her and tried to ease her pain but in the end had to say that the issue with the cat would need to be worked out with her mother. After the phone call I thought about how sad it was that a child would call me …”
A mother and child came to the CAC … They were here regarding sexual abuse. In talking with the Victim Advocate, the mother was sharing how thankful she was for our center and the treatment she and her daughter received. She stated she wished she could share with others about her experience but it would be too difficult.
“We interviewed a 7-year-old-boy for abuse. He was very quiet most of the time … I finally engaged him with a board game and offered him a snack and something to drink. I was taken aback when he started to leave and asked if he had to return. I explained he did not … He looked at me and said, “Lady, all the people here have been so nice to me. If you want me to, I will come back.”
So what can people like you and me do to help?
CAC and agency staff are professionals, so there is no need for volunteers in the traditional sense, but there is a huge need for advocates and support. The CAC offers Darkness to Light, a national training program to educate parents, grandparents and others who work with children to recognize and prevent child sexual abuse and how to react appropriately when it does occur.
And there is always money. The CAC has successfully met the Lily Endowment Challenge of the Cumberland Community Foundation (full disclosure — I co-chaired this effort with Joyce Loughlin), which is a great help in building and safeguarding CAC’s future. In CAC’s endowment building campaign, more really is, well, more.
Wouldn’t you want a child you love to have these services if he or she needed them?