In case I ever doubted the direction my own healing journey took me beginning in 2004 once I realized nothing I had ever been told about so-called recovery was helping me when I needed help most – and began my self-directed research that led me to attachment study and then into developmental neuroscience – this email alert that just appeared today from Prevent Child Abuse New York absolutely affirms my work:

August 24, 2012

A Rare Case In Texas Sheds Light on Complex Reality of Child Abuse

“Sometimes it takes an incredibly rare event to shed light on something common, and by pushing the limits of how we think of murder by child abuse, this case (“Childhood abuse killed 36-year-old Texas woman, police say“) does just that.

The sad fact is that adults die from consequences of child abuse every day, but rarely do they die in a way as medically clear-cut as this. When children suffer any form of abuse during childhood, as well as other extremely stressful events such as parental domestic violence, mental illness, chemical addiction or incarceration, it changes the way their brains grow and develop. It also changes the way a child’s immune and endocrine systems develop. Unfortunately, within the confines of today’s medicine, these changes are permanent. Even if the abuse stops and the child’s mind and soul heal, permanent physical damage has been done.

One of those damaging conditions is a pre-disposition to mental illnesses, including depression. Statistically, an unfortunate consequence of depression is often suicide. Child abuse survivors are 1122 percent more likely to attempt suicide than their non-abused peers. While I welcome the recent focus on bullying prevention that has come from a few high-profile suicides, the simple truth is that if we are trying to prevent youth suicide, we get the most “bang for our buck” by preventing child abuse from happening. An increased likelihood to become addicted to alcohol, cigarettes and illegal drugs is another documented consequence of child abuse, as is an increased likelihood to die from cancer, heart disease and violent crime. In fact, child abuse survivors are more likely to die from every leading cause of death at any age than their non-abused peers. But the nature of our legal system limits our ability to prosecute these kinds of deaths as murder—after all, alcoholism, drug addiction and even suicide have an element of choice involved in them.

While I believe it is crucial that child abuse is prosecutable, I also realize that our court system cannot deliver “justice” to those who have been victimized as children. Arresting parents who inflict neglect, physical abuse or emotional abuse on their children doesn’t accomplish much. The abused child, and any other siblings living with the now-incarcerated parent, need a new home. If those children end up in foster care, the odds of them growing into successful adults are low. The odds of them growing and healing are better if they can be placed with relatives who are up to the challenge of raising an abused child, but this isn’t always an option. Children rarely feel relief when a parent or caregiver is arrested—they usually feel guilt for causing the arrest, and for the upheaval they’ve caused their family. Threat of arrest doesn’t deter most child abusers. I have known many in my life; all of them say child abuse is terrible, many will say it was something they suffered, but all of them say it is something they have never done. With the exception of sex offenders, most child abusers aren’t much of a threat to children who aren’t their own—they are very unlikely to shake a stranger’s baby in a grocery store, for example—so there’s no convincing argument that arresting them affects public safety.

The most visceral reason we applaud the arrest of “bad guys” is because we like the notion of victimizers suffering as much as their victims, but in the context of child abuse, even this idea becomes complex. While most child abuse survivors don’t go on to abuse children, most people who do abuse children were abused as children themselves. Being abused can cause parts of the psyche and self to shatter like glass, and anyone who comes in contact with broken glass is likely to experience some injury. This is especially true when the person exposed to the most broken glass is as delicate as a child. Non-sexual abuse is strongly tied to poor bonding with a child, either due to a parent’s own psychological issues at the time they become parents, due to stressors in the parent’s life when they become parents, or both. If a parent can’t bond with their child, they cannot experience much of the joy and satisfaction that comes with parenting. Imagine how hard it is to raise a child with little of the reward. Now imagine doing that while dealing with intense psychological and situational issues. If these parents become abusive or neglectful, it is likely that their children will develop behavior problems, making them even harder and less rewarding to parent. Very often adult children raised by such a family have a weak relationship with their parents, denying the parents of another reward of parenthood. In many ways, being an abusive parent is its own punishment.

Ultimately, the onus of the work of raising a child non-abusively falls on the shoulders of the child’s caretakers. It is naïve of us to think that, as a society, we can expect people with the most challenges to rise above them, every time, without help. For forty years, we have known exactly how to help parents who need it the most, and for forty years we have under-funded these programs. Currently, only two states offer evidence-based child abuse prevention services to all high-risk parents who want them. In New York, less than ten percent of high-risk parents have access to these services. As interesting and appealing as it may be to charge a dead woman with murder for an act she committed 36 years prior to her victim’s death, more punishment isn’t going to fix this issue. While law makers will never be held legally accountable when someone dies from child abuse, whether they die as a child or an adult, a strong argument can be made that they have a moral responsibility to do as much as they can to prevent it. And an equally strong argument can be made that those of us who care about this issue must let it guide who we choose to lead, and where we ask them to lead us. Stories like this will only become rarer when all of us realize we can, and must, help insulate children from the lacerating forces of the world.”


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