It takes a village to raise a child.
If the village is knowledgeable about childhood trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), they can spare their children lifelong harm.
Here are some things we should all know about how communities can protect children from the consequences of ACEs.
Can we prevent ACE’s in a community?
Yes. There are 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. A 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 (SOL) on the crime of child sexual abuse is the single biggest “fix”.
It takes, on average, over 21 years before a child sexual abuse 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. Studies indicate that most teachers won’t believe a child’s disclosure of sexual abuse if they hear it, despite their training. Teachers are mandated reporters in all 50 states.
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 reporters.
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 tell them it’s OK to resist any unwanted physical contact. However, this strategy is complicated if they use corporal punishment or fear-based parenting.
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. Children who disclose to adults who don’t believe them or don’t act appropriately experience additional trauma. Their case is not prosecuted.
Do we need to limit sex offenders’ access to the internet to protect children?
Maternal home visiting programs encourage new parents to bond with their children, help new parents learn parenting skills, and get their own life in order. This prevents 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 an important part of child-rearing often benefit from learning new techniques. They 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.
Do residency restrictions on sex offenders work?
Sex offenders gain access to children by forming relationships with them, and usually by developing relationships with their family and the child’s community. Limiting their physical proximity to places like schools and parks doesn’t restrict their ability to form relationships with children.
Often an offender’s family believes they were wrongly convicted and gives them carte blanche access to their kids, or they believe the offender has served their time, been rehabilitated, and deserves a second chance.
Sex offenders often date single women who can’t wrap their minds around the fact that someone so good to them can be a danger to their child. It is sporadic that sex offenders kidnap children- every case gets significant media coverage, and many cases of children being “kidnapped” end up being something else.
How do we prevent physical abuse?
Maternal home visiting programs encourage new parents to bond with their children, help new parents learn parenting skills, and get their own life in order. Maternal home visiting programs prevent physical abuse.
Teaching higher-functioning parents about child development and parenting can help prevent abuse, especially if they are new or highly motivated to learn.
Parents who come from a background where corporal punishment is part of child-rearing will benefit from learning new techniques. Otherwise, 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 equal.
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 hasn’t bonded with their child will struggle to enjoy their childhood, 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 parents are in an abusive relationship, they invest all their emotional energy 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.
Parents who don’t bond with their child will often put their relationship with their partner, a gratifying relationship for the parent, above their relationship with their child. This lack of bonding can lead to horrific, headline-grabbing situations. These include parents knowingly allowing their partner to abuse their child sexually, or entering into a relationship with a known sex offender.
How do you prevent Domestic Violence?
Belief systems held by the abuser cause domestic violence. It is not caused by mental illness, substance abuse, anger issues, etc., although they may co-occur.
The only things that stop someone who practicing these belief systems are accountability and monitoring. From a public policy point of view, a group of best practices called The Quincy Solution dramatically decreased the rates of domestic violence crime in a community. It isn’t magic and only discourages abusers from engaging in abusive and illegal acts.
Many abusers have turned the family court into a new arena 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.
Are there any other useful policies that prevent child sexual abuse?
There is a strong link between having a persistent sexual attraction to children (the definition of the word “pedophile”) and sexually abusing them. Strong laws against child pornography are warranted. Whoever makes the images they are images of child rape and child abuse; they fuel sexual abuse of other children, and incarcerating the person possessing them teaches 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 help. It changes the cultural message that sometimes, an adult having sex with minors is OK. We also need laws mandating that family court staff need to understand the dynamics of incest, so courts do not hand sexually abused children to their abuser, and abusers are held accountable for their abuse.
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 reliable systems in place where sex abuse survivors can get high-quality therapy and associated services.
Universal, voluntary access to maternal home visiting programs should be widely available. They have a significant impact on how good a parent a sex abuse survivor will become, and how good they will be at protecting their child from sexual abuse.
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 connected to surviving child sexual abuse, although this link is weaker than reported.
Minors commit about 40% of child sexual abuse. 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.
How important is it to educate adults about child sexual abuse?
Even if Statutes of Limitations were removed in every state tomorrow, there would still be many 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.
Texas passed legislation mandating that teachers receive education on child sex abuse. Reports of child sex abuse increased. Presumably, because teachers recognized situations they never recognized before.
What about sex offender registries?
There is no evidence to show that registries increase public safety.
They don’t work because:
- No more than 10% of sex offenders get convicted and registered (statute of limitation reform is a significant part of that problem)
- Most people don’t understand how to keep their kids safe from sex offenders and…
- There are people in any community who will knowingly put their kids into contact with sex offenders.
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 to keep offenders, particularly young ones, from reoffending.
Spanking is common, and legal in most places. Can’t you just teach people to spank and not beat?
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 of 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 effectively prevent both emotional and physical neglect. They also help parents control any mental illnesses and substance abuse issues they may be suffering from, eliminating another source of ACEs.
CPS has a different definition of “neglect” to the ACE Study. From CPS’s point of view, it’s not “neglect” if a child doesn’t have food, shelter, heat, or medical care as long as the family is doing everything possible to access and utilize the community’s resources. It is 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 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 partners are more likely to abuse their children. Striking 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, add additional ACE points. The death of a parent is a further point; domestic murder is a leading cause of death among women in specific age brackets, and women in acts of self-defense murder many men.
Abusers who are never held accountable for their actions won’t change and will go on to abuse more 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 right thing to do.
More about ACEs
Divorce, separation, and death
What is parental mental illness?