ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The neglect and abuse of children by the adults who are supposed to provide for them and protect them is one of those social ills that is studied and task-forced and legislated and prosecuted and bemoaned. And like the monster in the horror movie, it keeps coming back.
It is global. If we could eliminate poverty and substance abuse, we would eliminate a good percentage of the situations that lead to children being harmed.
It is personal. If each of us would step in every time we saw one of the warning signs of abuse or neglect and change the weather, we could reset the way families act.
It is crucial. Generations of New Mexicans ignore their kids because they were ignored, hit their kids because they were hit, fondle their nephews and nieces because they were fondled, retreat into drugs and alcohol because that’s what their parents did.
It is impossible. Our society values privacy and punishment. We all defend our right to be left alone behind our doors and to raise our kids the way we see fit. The state steps in when there’s been a report or an injury or a death, but by then the damage has been done.
Funny thing about impossible problems. Someone out there is always trying to solve them.
By profession, Susan Miller is a pediatric psychologist who works with children at the Carrie Tingley Hospital who have suffered trauma.
By temperament, Miller manages to be cheery and steely at the same time.
I suppose she has to be. She deals with victims of “nonaccidental trauma,” which is the catch-all medical term for shaken babies, kids thrown against walls and all the other horrors we read about in the newspaper and see on TV. In the past two years, her unit has seen these cases double, which Miller attributes to economic stresses.
She makes the point that, although this happens again and again, it doesn’t need to happen at all.
“It is 100 percent preventable,” she says. “And that’s what makes it so sad.”
And frustrating – especially since there is near 100 percent agreement that child abuse is a big problem and there are dozens of groups and agencies out there organized to prevent it or ease the consequences.
Miller has launched the New Mexico Child Abuse Prevention Task Force with the idea of knitting together many of those strands to make a stronger thread.
The group includes medical staff at the University of New Mexico, the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department and the Indian Health Service as well as local nonprofits ranging from S.A.F.E. House to the New Mexico Teen Pregnancy Coalition to All Faiths Receiving Home.
Who hurts kids? Eighty percent of child abusers are male, they tend to be 18 to 30 years old and they are more likely to be a mother’s boyfriend than the child’s father. Child advocates have a term for the most dangerous person in a child’s life – the “reluctant baby sitter.”
But, Miller says, “There’s not just one perpetrator. Anybody can be a perpetrator given stress and given enough bad things happening in their lives.”
With those profiles of abusers in mind – young men and potentially everybody else – two of the task force’s projects strike me as so brilliantly simple they could actually have an impact.
One proposal is to develop a statewide hotline that stressed-out parents or other caregivers can call before a bad thing happens. It would be a place where you could talk to a nurse or counselor when the baby’s been crying for an hour or the 2-year-old is throwing his food on the floor and there’s no one around to give you a hand and you’re sure you’re about to snap.
Police, firefighters and EMTs – the people who see things brewing before children get hurt – could hand out the number to stressed-out families they encounter.
The second is a series of public service announcements aimed at young men that will plainly state that it’s wrong to shake a baby or hit a child. It’s a simple message that sounds like it should go without saying, but obviously it isn’t reaching the right people or it isn’t sinking in.
April is Child Abuse Awareness Month. It’s a good time to keep in mind that babies cry and children act up and that shaking them and hitting them will never stop that. And to commit the New Mexico Child Abuse Prevention Task Force’s motto to memory: “Child Abuse – 100% Preventable.”
Information about the task force, including its public meeting schedule and resources, can be found at nm-capt.health.unm.edu.
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— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal