Child abuse is often called an “invisible crime” because no one wants to see it or talk about it. However, to the child being abused the trauma is not only real but can have lifelong consequences. Thankfully, there’s hope.
Early intervention and identifying resources for treatment are both crucial to helping children overcome the effects of adverse childhood experiences. Abuse doesn’t just impact a child’s health now, it often results in negative, long-term physical and mental health issues.
The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study, first published in 1998 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, helped identify the relationship between children who are exposed to emotional, physical, sexual abuse, and household dysfunction and an individual’s health problems later in life.
“Unfortunately, children who are exposed to bad things or have bad things happen to them have a higher risk for future mental and physical health issues. This can also make them more vulnerable to future substance abuse, victimization, and problems in the criminal justice system,” said Cathy Baldwin-Johnson, M.D., medical director of Alaska CARES in Anchorage, Alaska. “For many, adverse childhood experiences have lifelong consequences.”
“Without treatment, adults who have experienced abuse as children may adopt different ways to deal with what they experienced, such as substance abuse. One of the things learned in the ACE Study was that even the people who didn’t develop substance abuse or mental health problems still were more likely to have health issues and die younger than those who had not experienced abuse or adversity,” said Dr. Baldwin-Johnson.
Even so, reversing the cycle of the long-term effects of abuse is very possible. Through intervention and treatment, caregivers can help children reverse the impact of abuse. Sometimes this requires work with parents.
“One of the things we do at Alaska CARES is provide help and resources for children and get them involved in therapy early. But we also provide support for the parents because, if the home is safe, most of these kids are going to go back home,” added Dr. Baldwin-Johnson. “Even though the child is the patient, maybe they’re not the only one who needs therapy—maybe mom or dad has suffered traumatic experiences and needs help as well.”
Advocacy centers – a safe space
In addition to early intervention, connecting children and families to the resources they need to begin the healing process is important to ending the cycle of abuse. To do that, children need a safe space to discuss their experiences, such as child advocacy centers.
According to Dr. Baldwin-Johnson, providing all types of care an abused child needs in one location helps to ease the suffering for the whole family. This approach avoids the need for duplicate interviews at multiple, adult-centered facilities.
Many advocacy centers provide evaluation services under one roof, where victim advocates, law enforcement, child protection, forensic medicine and mental health professionals can work together to help victims of child abuse.
Prevent and report
Because children are not always willing to talk about traumatic experiences, it’s important for the adults in their lives to be observant and look for signs of abuse.
“Children who are acting out in sexually inappropriate ways or have other concerning behavior changes such as aggressiveness, anger, withdrawal, anxiety or depression maybe showing signs they were abused,” said Dr. Baldwin-Johnson. “In teens, symptoms of abuse can also include risky behaviors or substance abuse.”
According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, other signs of child abuse may include:
- Children with unexplained injuries or injuries that are not consistent with the history provided or with their age or development status.
- Children who run away from home or are afraid of their home environment.
- Children who have been exposed to domestic violence, maltreatment or neglect.
- Children who display sudden changes in appearance or behavior.
In these cases, parents and other adults should talk to their children and attempt to get kids to talk about why they are behaving that way. If you suspect a child has suffered from emotional, physical or sexual abuse, take action – notify law enforcement or your local child protective services.
With early intervention and treatment, we can reverse the cycle, provide children the opportunity to heal and prevent the long-term health effects of abuse.