What You Should Know about Child Abuse and Neglect

What can we do about this modern crisis?

by Jill Davis

Remember the H1N1 flu virus that President Barack Obama called a national emergency in the fall of 2009? Once 1,000 people died from the disease, the World Health Organization warned of a worldwide pandemic. Our health care system quickly mobilized as the public watched horrifying reports about 50 million deaths from a deadly plague back in the World War I era. It appeared this new swine flu was poised to leave us teetering on the brink of disaster.

After a vaccine was developed, millions of doses reached the vulnerable masses across America. Later, though, it looked as if we might have overreacted. Now large quantities of unused vaccine worth millions in health care dollars have reached their expiration date and must be destroyed. Did we ward off a crisis, or did it simply fail to materialize?

Sad statistics

Another crisis has materialized, but not all of us know the grim details.

The Children’s Bureau, part of the Child Welfare Information Gateway (Department of Health and Human Services), keeps count of children who suffer from abuse or neglect in any given year in the United States. For 2008 at least 510,675 children fell victim to abuse or neglect, often at the hands of family members.[1] Child Welfare also stated that in 2008 about 1,740 youngsters went to an early grave because of abuse.[2]

Although numbers have seen a decrease in recent years (down from 1.25 million in 2006), statistics, like the perpetrators of abuse, can be misleading. Many instances of child abuse still go unreported or undetected. Additionally, evidence supports that neglect targets over 60 percent of kids victimized by abusive adults.[3]

Effects of abuse

Those who survive childhood abuse are at risk of suffering long-lasting effects. According to Dr. Vincent Iannelli, there are often

• long-term physical problems, including physical disabilities
• behavioral problems
• psychological problems
• difficulties in school and social relationships
• criminal behavior and a high risk of being arrested for a violent crime as a juvenile or adult

Says Dr. Iannelli, “Another big consequence of child abuse is the direct and indirect cost associated with child abuse, which have been estimated to be about $94 billion each year, including child welfare, law enforcement and special education.” [4]

Healing through stories

More and more adults continue coming forward to tell their stories, providing greater understanding of how survivors of child abuse endure. This practice of telling is encouraged to facilitate healing in the lives of victims, empowering them to move forward, even as they reach out to others like themselves.

Well-known celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou have shared their own experiences, offering hope to many. Dave Pelser, in his Pulitzer Prize-nominated book A Child Called It, became a voice for victims formerly afraid to speak out for fear of retribution. After coming to grips with an abusive background, he has been recognized and decorated by several presidents.

Warning signs

Are there ways to recognize potential abusers? Dr. Iannelli lists the following warning signs that could signal problems:

• parental/caregiver substance abuse
• domestic violence
• personal history with abuse
• poverty
• lack of parenting skills [5]

Why people abuse

There are many other reasons people abuse children that are not readily understood. Health and Human Services posted a manual titled A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice on its Web site. Chapter 5 (“What Factors Contribute to Abuse and Neglect?”) goes a long way in helping even the novice understand that “Children are not responsible for being victims of maltreatment.”

Indicators point to trouble, even at an early age. For instance:

. . . age and development — physical, mental, emotional, and social — may increase the child’s vulnerability to maltreatment. . . . Infants and young children, due to their small physical size, early developmental status, and need for constant care, can be particularly vulnerable to child maltreatment.[6]

Shaken baby syndrome appears all too often in infants, while teenagers are at greater risk for sexual abuse. Unfortunately, children with disabilities, chronic illness, or difficult temperaments also overwhelm parents and incur their abuse.[7]

Child Help

As with a pandemic, sounding an alarm and keeping facts in front of the population at large are critical when stamping out an epidemic of such tragic portions. In 1959 two budding actresses, Sara O’Meara and Yvonne Fedderson, founded Child Help. This non-political organization educates the public and provides treatment and advocacy centers around the country to aid both victims and those who study the subject.

Both women graduated from the famous Pasadena Playhouse and had careers in stage and film ahead of them. But their passion for children in trouble led them to three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize instead of Emmy or Oscar nominations.

In 1982 their group established the National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD), which staffs masters-level counselors 24/7 to speak with individuals regarding suspected abuse. This hotline also connects callers to appropriate agencies in their states or at the federal level. Check out their Web site at www.childhelp.org for a wealth of information, including projects you can become involved with in your state.

What you can do

If you believe a child in your neighborhood or elsewhere is being subjected to abuse or neglect, contact your local law enforcement agency or Child Protective Services. Comments are held in strictest confidence. Each state designs its own child welfare system unique to its special needs, but results gathered across the nation strive to achieve a common goal: providing safe haven for any child found suffering from abuse.

Over the years, great strides have been made to raise awareness concerning this issue. Especially noteworthy is the creation of a national database known as the National Child Abuse Registry that lists offenders. This and additional information provide useful tools on the childhelp.org site or when you contact Child Protective Services in your area.

Christ’s example

Children played a huge role in Christ’s ministry. Their images punctuate a great deal of His talking points. For example, in the book of Matthew, Jesus suggested we humble ourselves as children to become the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And Jesus clearly pointed out the special place children hold in families and in society.

Since Jesus valued children so much, so should we. A better understanding and awareness of the plight facing abused and neglected children offer an opening to Christians everywhere who seek to eradicate the problem.


1. Child Welfare Information Gateway (www.childwelfare.gov)
2. Ibid.
3. “Child Abuse Statistics,” About.com
4. Vincent Iannelli, M. D., “Child Abuse Prevention,” About.com
5. Ibid.
6. Child Welfare Information Gateway (www.childwelfare.gov)