At five years old, Katie hears the door slam. Keys crash against the countertop. She feel her heart pounding and her mind begin to race, “Please have had a good day, please don’t be mad…” The house falls silent, then a voice filled with frustration and anger echoes down the hallway as she hears a crash in the kitchen. Katie turns off the light and jumps into bed, pretending to be asleep, hoping maybe, just maybe, he won’t turn down the hallway. Loud footsteps clomp closer and closer to her bedroom door, then stop and trail off in another direction. She hears a loud smack followed by a string of loud obscenities and muffled crying. Katie closes her eyes tightly, “Please no, not again.” The crying turns to screaming, pleading, “No! No, please! Leave her alone!” Katie’s bedroom light turns on. She is drug from her bed to face the horrors of what she had heard from behind the door.
Katie’s story is real for the more than 7.2 million children affected by some form of child abuse each year. More shocking, approximately five children die every day as a result of abuse—80 percent of those fatalities are children under the age of four.
The most recent report from the Mississippi Department of Human Services cited nearly 7,000 evidenced cases of abuse or neglect in the state with nearly 26,000 investigations. Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education. In honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month, Canopy Children’s Solutions wants to bring awareness to this issue that is devastating the lives of children across our state and country.
What constitutes child abuse? Under Mississippi Code Section 43-21-105, child abuse is defined as a child whose parent, guardian, custodian, or any person responsible for his or her care or support, whether or not legally obligated to do so, has caused or allowed to be caused upon the child non-accidental physical injury or other maltreatment. This does not include reasonable corporal punishment. Child abuse is more broadly characterized by six major categories by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families and Children’s Bureau: physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, abandonment, and/or substance abuse.
“Understanding what constitutes abuse is important in protecting those who are often unable to protect themselves,” said Tammy Miller, South Central Region Director for Canopy Children’s Solutions, who has more than 17 years of child welfare experience. “Many times, a child will not openly tell a trusted adult they are being abused, either because they are too young to understand that these actions are inappropriate, or for fear of what the abuser will do if they find out. However, there are sometimes signs or behaviors in children that can point to an abusive history.”
Signs of abuse can include extreme aggressive and unwarranted behavior, unexplained injuries, cowering from an authoritative figure, frequent or prolonged unexcused absence from school, fear of going home, behaviors that are not age appropriate (pants wetting in school-aged adolescents, hyper sexuality in children, delays in development, etc.), and extreme weight loss or malnourishment.
If you suspect that a child has been abused, collect as much factual information as possible. Document things you have witnessed, seen or heard that make you suspect abuse with the date(s) and detailed description(s) of each occurrence (i.e. child was out of school for a week and returned with a faint bruise to his left cheek; child constantly comes to school hungry; parent yelled and called child “stupid” and “useless” over report card grades, young child seen wandering the street alone after dark). Miller advises asking the child about things you have noticed using open ended and non-leading questions while being aware the child may not be truthful. Be sure to disclose if you think he or she is hiding something. File a report by calling the Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-222-8000, or file a report online at www.msabusehotline.mdhs.ms.gov. These two options will open a case with the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services (CPS) who will further investigate the claim. Only utilize these options if the situation is not an emergency. If a child appears to be in imminent danger, call 911 immediately.
“Many people shy away from reporting concerns over fear of false accusations. If the behaviors are severe enough to warrant concern, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Miller. “Filing a report does not necessarily mean a child will be removed from a home or that criminal charges will be pressed. In fact, CPS can often provide services to the family such as substance abuse treatment, mental health evaluations, parenting skills, and other social services that can benefit the family as a whole.”
Children are our most valuable, and yet, our most vulnerable assets. Helping protect the livelihood of children in our communities is a responsibility of all adults, whether you are a teacher, a parent at a baseball game, or a bystander in a store parking lot. Don’t let the silent cries of a child keep you from speaking up. If you suspect something, say something.
For more information about signs and types of child abuse, visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway website at www.childwelfare.gov or contact your state child welfare agency.
Written by: Laura Walker, staff writer for Canopy Children’s Solutions