It was a perfect winter night. I was settled on the couch cuddling my first baby. Pink and warm, just days old, she was perfection personified. Flurries swirled outside my window and my husband sat beside me reading. Cozy and protected from the December cold, I was absolutely content.
Something caught my attention on the newscast humming in the background. I reached over and turned up the volume to listen. An abandoned newborn infant, just days old, had been found in a bus stop in Minneapolis. Still alive, the infant was being cared for at a local hospital.
An infant. The same age as the baby snuggled in my arms. Left for dead in the frigid winter cold.
As my eyes swept between my baby and the screen, a visceral horror welled up in me and shattered my contentment. It was a palpable amalgam of outrage, sadness, and disbelief that took my breath away.
My reaction surprised me. I was no stranger to child abuse – having worked extensively in the inner city with at-risk youth. I spent hours each week with kids who faced unimaginable home lives. I’d witnessed parents treating their children with less regard than they would treat a dog. I’d changed the sagging over-filled diapers of infants brought to our youth program because they’d been left in the care of a first grade sibling. And I’d comforted children whose father had been hauled off to jail for ripping the air conditioner off the wall, climbing into the room, and beating their mother to within an inch of her life right in front of them.
Still, this seemed … different. Worse. Foreign.
I realized in that moment that becoming a mom made the abuse more personal. More real. More devastating.
You certainly don’t have to be a parent to understand the tragedy of child abuse. But it took on a different tone when holding my own child. I couldn’t imagine what kind of mother could so callously leave her infant to die.
Years have passed since that night and I have encountered countless more stories of abuse, neglect, and devastation befalling children in my work and volunteer life. It still saddens and angers me, but over the years I have learned exactly who would do this to their child.
And it breaks my heart.
Have you ever stopped to really think about who would harm their child? Try to picture this individual. What image pops into your head? What character comes to mind? What kind of life might this person live?
The reality is, no one type of person harms or neglects their kids. But research into the crisis of child abuse sheds light on what factors and life circumstances increase the risk of perpetrating abuse and neglect of children.
Here is one such list of risk factors from the *American Psychological Association:
- Low self-esteem, poor impulse control, depression, anxiety or antisocial behavior.
- Experiencing or witnessing violence as a child, which teaches violent behavior or justifies it as proper behavior.
- Substance abuse, which interferes with mental functioning, judgment, self-control, ability to be protective of one’s child and making the child’s needs a priority.
- Lack of knowledge about normal child development and unrealistic expectations, frustration and/or inappropriate methods of discipline.
Imagine living under constant pressure. A bow-string being pulled tighter and tighter. The tension building until the snap becomes inevitable. Now imagine being isolated, with no one to turn to for help. Add to that an abusive childhood. Substance abuse. Toxic relationships. And no role models in your life of loving, healthy, caring adult-child relationships.
No one wakes up one day and decides to harm their child. On the contrary, most parents who abuse and neglect their kids are teed up throughout their lives to do so. This is not to excuse the behavior in any way. And we need to be careful not to stereotype or make assumptions based on one’s life history. But a clear understanding of the factors that lead one to abuse can inform a compassionate and meaningful response to the issue.
So how can we actually make a difference and protect kids?
I believe we make the biggest impact when we invest in individuals with our time, talent, and relationships.
The best place to start investing is right in your own community. (Bear in mind that you might have to draw a bigger radius around what you call your local community.) Try to look for organizations in your area that offer tangible, relational support to at-risk families. You might first check into which charities your local faith communities partner with because they often extensively vet organizations before offering support.
Social isolation of parents and families is a key risk factor for perpetrating child abuse. So consider investing in programs that allow you to build relationships rather than offering only one and done experiences. Serving meals, stuffing backpacks or donating work outfits for job interviews are wonderful services that bring welcome relief to hurting families – please don’t stop doing those things. But ask if there are opportunities to really get to know the people whom the organization serves. Because we know that meaningful relationships can be the biggest protective factor in preventing child abuse.
Be willing to sacrifice
The work of investing in communities is hard, frustrating, and time consuming. What at-risk families need are people willing to roll up their sleeves, invest time, and take the long journey with them. And often the greatest impact you can make both personally and for your community is an age-old principle: develop a friendship with someone from a different background than yourself.
You can make a real difference in the life of a family. You can be part of the solution to child abuse. It is not easy. But I can assure you the sacrifice is well worth the cost.