Communities Preventing ACEs
It takes a village to raise a child. If the village is knowledgeable about childhood trauma and ACEs, they can spare children life-long harm. Here are some things all of us should know about protecting children from the life-long consequences of ACEs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can we prevent ACE’s in a community?
Yes. We know about effective programs that prevent most ACE’s in the lives of today’s children, and taking care of these ones in today’s children will make them much rarer in the next generation. The majority of child abuse can be viewed as a failure of public policy.
What laws most need to be fixed?
Removing the Statutes of Limitations on the crime of child sexual abuse is the single biggest “fix”. It takes, on average, over 21 years before a CSA survivor will talk about their victimization. The average age of a child victim, at their first victimization, is nine. And most states have an SOL on the crime that bars victims from the courts around their 18th birthday. So right there, you see the problem.
What about mandated reporter laws?
Mandated reporter laws make authorities respond to physical abuse and neglect. They don’t discuss child sexual abuse in great depth, and studies indicate that most teachers (who are mandated reporters in all 50 states) won’t believe a child’s disclosure of sexual abuse if they hear it, despite their training. In some states, all adults are mandated reporters. These states have the same approximate rates of reported abuse, verified (indicated) abuse as states where only certain individuals are mandated reporter.
How important is it to educate children about child sexual abuse?
Experts agree that knowing the proper terms for their genitals, having some knowledge of sexuality, and not keeping secrets make children less “attractive” targets to potential predators. Most experts encourage parents to talk to kids about body boundaries, and to tell them it’s OK to resist any unwanted physical contact, although this strategy is difficult corporal punishment or fear-based parenting are used. This line of discussion can segue into age-appropriate discussions of child sexual abuse. Programs where children are encouraged to disclose child sexual abuse in schools or youth groups are more complicated, as children who disclose to adults who don’t believe them or act appropriately experience additional trauma, and their case won’t be prosecuted.
Do we need to limit sex offenders’ access to the internet to protect children?
Even if there were practical, constitutional ways to do this, it’s unlikely this would make a significant difference. While on-line exchanges and texts between an offender and their victim have become common, and while sharing sexual pictures has become a common part of the grooming process, the nature of child sexual abuse hasn’t changed since the rise of social networking and smart phones. Even when there is on-line contact between kids and abusers, studies show that most of the time, the child and abuser know each other face-to-face.
Do residency restrictions on sex offenders work?
There is no evidence they do. Sex offenders gain access to children by forming relationships with them, and usually by forming relationships with their family and the child’s community. Limiting their physical proximity to places like schools and parks doesn’t limit their ability to form relationships with children. Often an offender’s family either believes they were wrongly convicted and gives them carte blanc access to their kids, or they believe the offender has served their time, been rehabilitated, and deserve a second chance. Unless they are very closely monitored post-release, offenders often date single women who can’t wrap their mind around the fact that someone who is so good to them can be a danger to their child. It is extremely rare that sex offenders kidnap children- every case where that happens is widely reported on TV, and many cases of children being “kidnapped” end up being something else.
How do we prevent physical abuse?
Maternal home visiting programs that encourage new parents to bond with their children, that help new parents learn parenting skills and get their own life in order prevent physical abuse. Teaching higher-functioning parents about child development and parenting can help prevent abuse, especially if the parents are new or highly motivated to learn. Parents who come from a background where corporal punishment is considered a major part of child rearing often benefit from learning new techniques- they can find themselves in a vicious cycle of spanking causing worse behavior which causes more violent hitting which causes worse behavior… until the parent’s “discipline” crosses the line into injurious and abusive.
How effective can parenting classes be? I’ve seen families cycle through them again and again after each call to CPS?
Not all parenting classes are created equally- some are evidence based and taught by experts, some aren’t. Not all parents are capable of absorbing and practicing what they learn in a class. A parent who isn’t bonded to their children will struggle to enjoy their child, and as such will struggle to prioritize them and will struggle with situations when the child isn’t gratifying. For a parent in this situation, a more therapeutic model is necessary. If a parent is in an abusive relationship, all their emotional energy is invested in appeasing their partner, leaving little for becoming a better parent. They may abuse their child out of frustration or to appease their partner. Parents who abuse their partner are more likely to be physically and sexually abusive to their children. These abusers often abuse their children to control and manipulate their partner, so increasing their skills, by itself, won’t change their behavior. And parents who aren’t bonded with their child will often put their relationship with their partner (a gratifying relationship for the parent) above their relationship with the child. This can lead to horrific, headline-grabbing situations that include parents knowingly allowing their partner to sexually abuse their child or entering into a relationship with a known sex offender.
How do you prevent Domestic Violence?
Domestic violence is caused by belief systems held by the abuser. It is not caused by mental illness, substance abuse, anger issues, etc., although they may co-occur. If these belief systems are not reinforced in our culture, they become rarer. But the only things that stop someone who practices these belief systems is accountability and monitoring. From a public policy point of view, a group of best practices called The Quincy Solution has been shown to dramatically decrease the rates of domestic violence crime in a community. It isn’t magic, and it only discourages abusers from engaging in abusive acts that are actually illegal. Since many abusers have turned family court into a new arena for them to abuse their partners, legislation like the Safe Child Act, which specifies that only bona fide experts must investigate allegations of child abuse and domestic violence, will limit that.
Using the ACE research as a guide, what are some good policies for children who have already been abused?
The ACE study shows it is crucial for kids who have already been abused to not experience further abuse. That may mean giving an abusive parent no further, unsupervised access. Since many of the effects can be minimized in children, with proper medical care, they must be entrusted to adults who can and will provide them with proper, on-going medical and psychological care. It shows us that abuse is too damaging for us to use anything other than best practices and research while evaluating it. As such, we must recognize why the parent abused their child, and if they are likely to re-abuse or not.
So how do we prevent child sexual abuse?
Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) is one of the most common ACE’s, with slightly over 20% of adults reporting having survived it. It appears that the best way to tackle this is a “cocktail approach” of fixing broken laws that allow most sex offenders to escape consequences for their crimes, educating adults about child sexual abuse so they can protect kids, increasing parents’ over-all life and parenting skills, and working with offenders, particularly young ones, to keep them from reoffending.
What about registries?
There is no evidence to show that registries increase public safety. They don’t work because 1) no more than 10% of sex offenders get convicted and registered (SOL’s are a major part of that problem) 2) most people don’t understand how to keep their kids safe from sex offenders and 3) there are people in any community who will knowingly put their kids into contact with sex offenders.
How important is it to educate adults about child sexual abuse?
Even if Statutes of Limitations were removed in all states tomorrow, there would still be a lot of sex offenders on the streets, doing everything they can to abuse kids. If parents and professionals who work with kids understand that, they can recognize the “grooming” behavior abusers use, and learn to keep kids from one adult/ one child situations behind closed doors. Schools, churches, daycares, etc., can adopt strong policies against one child/one adult situations and work them into the organization’s culture. In Texas, legislation was passed mandating that teachers take a CSA education class, and reports of CSA increased. Presumably, this is because teachers started recognizing situations they never recognized before.
Is there anything we can do to keep people from becoming sex offenders?
There are some gaps in our knowledge of why and how people become sexually abusive. Some sexually abusive behavior is tied to having survived child sexual abuse, although this link is weaker than often reported. However, about 40% of child sexual abuse is committed by minors. The younger the minor, the more likely it is they are copying something they experienced or witnessed- children as young as three can engage in violent, sexually abusive behavior that damages their victims for life. Minors receiving appropriate therapy are likely to stop the behavior. Some child sexual abuse comes from a sense of entitlement- cultural changes, particularly ones that focus on accountability, and make it likely for abusers to experience consequences, are a good idea. Some minors experience sexual abuse in dating situations- cultural changes and laws that focus on consent can be helpful here. Some teenagers are victims of statutory rape, and a cultural understanding of the power imbalance inherent to child/adult sex, may help here. Anyone experiencing a strong sexual attraction to children can click here to talk to an expert and find referrals for help.
What are other things communities need to do to protect kids?
States need to eliminate the Statute of Limitations for child sexual abuse, as this will increase the percentage of abusers facing conviction. Communities need to have good systems in place where CSA survivors can get high-quality therapy and associated services. And all communities should have universal, voluntary access to maternal home visiting programs, as they have a huge impact on how good of a parent a CSA survivor will become, and how good they will be at protecting their own child from sexual abuse.
Are there any other useful policies that prevent child sexual abuse?
There is a very strong link between having a persistent sexual attraction to children (the definition of the word “pedophile”) and actually sexually abusing them. So strong laws against child pornography are warranted- while these images may or may not be made by the person owning them, they are fueling sexual abuse of other children, and incarcerating the person possessing them teaches them there are consequences for this behavior and limits their access to children. Laws that make the purchase of a minor for sex a sexual offense also may help- it changes the cultural message that sometimes adult/minor sex is OK. There also need to be laws mandating that family court staff understand the dynamics of incest, so that sexually abused children aren’t handed over to their abuser and abusers are spared consequences for their abuse.
Spanking is common, and legal in most places. Can’t you just teach people to spank and not beat?
No. It is well known that spanking causes a child’s behavior to worsen, not improve. In addition to the negative lessons it teaches kids, it teaches parents to expect instant obedience from their children when they get frustrated. Another problem is that both children and adults get “desensitized” to spanking, with the child responding with less fear to being hit, and the parent deriving less satisfaction with their response to “ordinary” spanking. If a parent is committed to not spanking, and then spanks once out of utter frustration and anger, they’re much less likely to hit the child hard enough to cause physical damage and fear as a parent who is “desensitized” to hitting the child.
How do you prevent the ACE’s related to neglect?
Evidence-based maternal home visiting programs work very well at preventing neglect, and at helping parents control any mental illnesses and substance abuse issues they may be suffering from, eliminating another source of ACEs. That said, “neglect” from the point of view of CPS is different than “neglect” from the ACE standpoint. From CPS’ point of view, it’s not “neglect” if a child doesn’t have food, shelter, heat or medical care if the family is doing everything possible to access and utilize the community’s resources. It is considered an ACE if a child doesn’t have food, shelter, medical care, etc., regardless of how hard the parents may be trying to provide them. So in addition to good parents, part of ACE prevention is ensuring a community has an infrastructure to meet the basic needs of every child in the community. Seasoned CPS workers will say that chronically neglectful families are among the hardest ones for them to help- there can be multiple, complex “failure modes”. Which underscores how important it is to prevent the neglect from starting.
If all ACE’s have the same “weight”, and a divorce is as bad as witnessing domestic violence, should we even try to influence what adults in abusive relationships do?
Adults who batter their partner are more likely to abuse their children. Battering their partner gives their children an ACE score of 1. Psychological abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse each carry a score of 1. If the mother becomes so compromised from the chronic stress she’s under that she neglects or abuses the children, that is additional ACE points. The death of a parent is an additional point- domestic murder is a leading cause of death among women in certain age brackets, and many men are murdered by their partners in an act of self-defense. Abusers who are never held accountable for their actions won’t change, and will go on to abuse additional adults, and to harm their children. The ACE study shows that domestic violence is a public health issue with an impact that spreads far beyond the privacy of households. Having less contact with a bad parent can be unpleasant for children, but the ACE study shows that, in the case of domestic violence, this is the appropriate thing to do.
Erie County NY has a startlingly high rate of child abuse and child murder. They are also on the cutting edge of transforming into a community where abuse is prevented, not tolerated. In doing so, they will change the way the rest of the nation looks at its child abuse policies.
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