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Child Abuse Awareness is First Step to Prevention

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Child abuse awareness is crucial. Photo shows a girl holding a spinning colorful pinwheel.It’s estimated that 1 in 7 children nationwide experienced child abuse or neglect in the past year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In New Jersey, authorities substantiated 1,308 incidents in 2023, the fewest in the past eight years and nearly 60% less than in 2016.

The consequences of child abuse are serious and pervasive: abuse and neglect are among adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) linked to chronic health problems, substance abuse, and mental illness in adolescence and adulthood, according to the CDC. Cases of neglect account for about three-quarters of all child abuse incidents.

During Child Abuse Prevention Month, NewBridge Services is promoting child abuse awareness, explaining what it is, how to recognize it, and how to help prevent it.

Why Child Protection is Important

For parents, “It’s so important to recognize risk factors and seek help before a crisis develops,” said Denise Geffke-Ramos, director of NewBridge’s Child and Family Services. “Developing parenting skills and a support network are powerful antidotes to child abuse and neglect.”

“A healthy and secure attachment to a caretaker can have positive outcomes in all areas of a child’s life;  trauma and stress can interfere in parent’s ability to adequately meet their children’s attachment needs,” said NewBridge CFS Assistant Director Sandra Fitzsimmons.

NewBridge CFS works with families referred by the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency, providing counseling and skills training for children and parents/caregivers. Last year, NewBridge helped 240 abused and neglected children and their families learn skills for improved family dynamics.

“Helping caregivers address these stressors can help foster a stronger bond between parent and child and create more resilient families,” Fitzsimmons said.

What is Child Abuse?

Child abuse is described by four categories: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. 

  • Childhood neglect is by far the most common, and happens when a parent/caregiver fails to provide sufficient supervision, nourishment, shelter, education, clothing or medical care to a child.
  • Child physical abuse is when a parent/caretaker harms a child by hitting, slapping or punching them, or otherwise harming their body.
  • Child sexual abuse includes contact and sexual  penetration by an adult. A parent/guardian who allows another to commit sexual abuse also is guilty of the crime.
  • Emotional abuse of children is non-physical, and involves a sustained pattern of harmful, negative comments belittling a child.

Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect

Child abuse can cause profound and long-lasting harm. It affects brain development and the ability to regulate behavior and emotions and make decisions. Children who are abused may suffer anxiety and post-traumatic stress. They are at higher risk for being a victim of violence in the future, and developing a substance use disorder and/or mental health problems. They may have lower education and career attainment.

Safeguarding Children

Identifying childhood neglect and abuse is crucial. Here are signs to look out for:

Neglect

  • Poor hygiene
  • Weight loss
  • Physical/medical problems that go unaddressed
  • School absenteeism

Physical abuse

  • Unexplained bruises, burns, or welts
  • Injuries that are at different stages of healing
  • Child appears frightened of a parent or caregiver

Sexual abused 

  • Knowledge of sex that is age-inappropriate
  • Regressing to behaviors like bedwetting
  • Becoming withdrawn, or clingy
  • Avoidance of a certain person

Emotional abuse

  • Worrying constantly
  • Experiencing delays in learning and emotional development
  • Suffering depression and low self-esteem
  • Doing poorly in school
  • Having unexplained headaches and stomachaches

Risk Factors for Child Abuse and Neglect

  • Parenthood at a young age, and without a support system
  • Lack of understanding about normal child development that can cause anger and frustration toward the child; children with disabilities are more likely to be abused
  • Poverty, unstable housing, unemployment and divorce, all which cause stress on families
  • Abuse of alcohol and/or drugs by a parent
  • Mental illness 
  • Domestic violence in the home
  • A parent’s history of being abused as a child
  • Isolation and lack of family and community support

Child Abuse Awareness: Protective Factors

Just as there are factors that make a child more prone to abuse, protective factors decrease that risk. They exist at the individual, community and societal levels. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued the 2023/2024 Prevention Resource Guide that outlines protective factors that help children and parents build resilience. Here are five from the Child Welfare Information Gateway:

  • Parental Resilience: Manages well and functions well when faced with challenges, adversity and trauma.
  • Social Connections: Builds positive relationships that provide emotional, informational, and instrumental and spiritual support.
  • Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development: Understands childhood development and parenting strategies that support physical, cognitive, language, social and emotional development
  • Concrete Support in Times of Need: has access to support and services that address a family’s needs and minimize stress caused by challenges.
  • Social-Emotional Competence of Children: Encourage family and child interactions that help children develop the ability to communicate clearly, recognize and regulate their emotions and establish and maintain relationships.

Child Abuse Help

Communities can help fight child abuse and neglect by advocating for programs and policies that reduce poverty and increase education and training opportunities. Talk to your local and state leaders about establishing or expanding services to meet the needs of families. Reach out to neighbors with children and become part of each other’s support network. But do NOT ignore child negligence or abuse.

Reporting Child Abuse or Neglect

By law in New Jersey, anyone who witnesses any form of child abuse or neglect or has reason to suspect it must speak up. Reports can be made to the New Jersey Child Abuse Hotline at 1-877 NJ ABUSE. (Use 911 if a child is in imminent danger.) More information is available here. A person who in good faith reports suspected abuse or neglect is immune from any criminal or civil liability. 

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