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UNITING AGAINST CHILD ABUSE – A Call for Community Action

Updated: May 9

Child abuse, once commonly considered a private family issue, is finally recognized as a pressing public health concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 1 of every 7 children in the U.S. has experienced child abuse or neglect over the last year. 

With research pointing to community environments as a contributing factor in the presence or absence of child abuse,  it may come as a surprise to some that it’s simply not a family matter. It is a community-wide problem that demands collective attention and action.

Defining Child Abuse

First, it’s important to understand what constitutes “child abuse” and how it affects children and the community at large. Child abuse refers to any behavior or act by an adult, caregivers, older children and parents that cause harm or potential harm to a child (anyone under 18). 

While people often associate physical harm with child abuse, physical abuse is only one of the five most common forms of abuse:

  • Physical abuse is the act of intentional physical violence like hitting, kicking, shaking and burning.

  • Emotional abuse undermines a child’s sense of self-worth and emotional stability/safety.

  • Sexual abuse includes any form of sexual exploitation or coercion.

  • Neglect happens when parents or caregivers ignore or fail to provide a child’s basic needs. 

Any one of these forms of abuse is considered an adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which are linked to long-term impacts on health and well-being. It’s important to also note here that, unfortunately, there are adults who may not even know that their actions qualify as abuse, which underscores even more the need for more education and awareness.

Common Short- and Long-Term Effects of Child Abuse

In addition to the immediate trauma of abuse, child victims often suffer both short- and long-term effects. Short-term consequences may disrupt a child’s ability to engage in everyday activities, such as school, activities and friendships. Complex trauma, often experienced by victims of multiple forms of abuse, has been shown to interfere with the capacity to process cognitive, emotional and sensory information. This can lead to difficulties with learning, resulting in poor academic performance along with trouble regulating emotions and forming connections with others. Without intervention and recovery efforts, short-term struggles are likely to lead to lifelong issues.

Children who experience trauma are also at higher risk for long-term health problems in adulthood and more prone to struggle with substance use disorders and addictions as teens and adults. Additionally, there are strong links between child abuse and mental health disorders including conduct, oppositional defiance, anxiety and mood disorders, just to name a few.

Along with chronic health issues, problem substance use and mental health disorders that can plague adult victims of child abuse, consequently lowering the collective community well-being, there are financial implications. According to the CDC, the total U.S. lifetime economic cost associated with child abuse was approximately $592 billion in 2018. This economic toll rivals the cost of other public health issues, such as heart disease and diabetes. 

Community Matters to Ending Child Abuse

Adverse childhood experiences are impacted not only by individual and family risk and protective factors, but community factors as well. According to the CDC, risk factors are “things that protect people and decrease the possibility of experiencing ACEs”, and protective factors are “things that protect people and decrease the possibility of experiencing ACEs.” The CDC provides a list of family and individual risk factors.

The list for community risk and protective factors also serves to indicate the ways a community can work toward offering support in areas that increase risks.

Some examples of community risk factors include:

  • Communities with high rates of poverty and limited educational and economic opportunities

  • Communities where neighbors don’t know or look out for one another and where there is low community involvement among residents

  • Communities with few community activities for young people

  • Communities where families frequently experience food insecurity

Some examples of community protective factors include:

  • Communities where families have access to economic and financial help

  • Communities with access to safe, stable housing

  • Communities where families have access to high-quality preschool

  • Communities with strong partnerships between community members and business, healthcare, government and other sectors

Empowering Communities for Necessary Change

The future of child abuse prevention requires efforts from every sector of society. We can start by sharing and discussing the role our communities play in risk and protective factors. When the community better understands the issues, we can ultimately develop support and intervention resources. The CDC offers valuable resources, like the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Resource for Action, guide local initiatives and empower stakeholders to make a meaningful difference.

Interested in learning about or attending trainings on child abuse prevention? Contact Thriving Families Alliance or visit our Trainings website page.

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