Child Abuse

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.—Martin Luther King, Jr.

While I’m pretty vocal about disapproving of the fact that so many kids spend most of their waking hours with strangers rather than with their families, the sad fact is that it is more common for a family member or friend to abuse or neglect children physically, psychologically, verbally, or sexually. That betrayal by someone who the child should be able to trust is, in fact, one of the most damaging parts of abuse or neglect in a psychological or spiritual sense.

The most recent statistics I’ve seen say that 1 in 3 females and 1 in 5 males experience some kind of sexual abuse by the time he or she is 18 and that only covers the assaults that are reported. It is well-known that the vast majority of incidents are never reported. Many of the women I’ve known closely have been victims of abuse as children or rape or attempted rapes as adults. (Actually, I’ve just found a link that may help with figures if you’re so inclined—the Child Welfare Information Gateway.) A fair number of the men I’ve known have been similarly victimized. Since I’m one of those who was raped as a child, I find it difficult to read much of the literature that is produced on the topic and cannot research the statistics very well. The prevalence of the problem is a sign of a deep sickness in our world.

Statistically, the incidence of abuse seems to be getting worse. The following is an excerpt from the executive summary of the Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect. The study was done in 1995 under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


  • There have been substantial and significant increases in the incidence of child abuse and neglect since the last national incidence study was conducted in 1986.
  • Under the Harm Standard definitions, the total number of abused and neglected children was two-thirds higher in the NIS-3 than in the NIS-2. This means that a child’s risk of experiencing harm-causing abuse or neglect in 1993 was one and one-half times the child’s risk in 1986.
  • Under the Endangerment Standard, the number of abused and neglected children nearly doubled from 1986 to 1993. Physical abuse nearly doubled, sexual abuse more than doubled, and emotional abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect were all more than two and one-half times their NIS-2 levels.
  • The total number of children seriously injured and the total number endangered both quadrupled during this time.

Child Characteristics

  • Girls were sexually abused three times more often than boys.
  • Boys had a greater risk of emotional neglect and of serious injury than girls.
  • Children are consistently vulnerable to sexual abuse from age three on.
  • There were no significant race differences in the incidence of maltreatment or maltreatment-related injuries uncovered in either the NIS-2 or the NIS-3.

In most cases abused children have tried to tell some adult about the abuse, but the adults are in denial or simply don’t know how to respond. In my case, the man to whom my aunt was married had systematically abused his own children and grandchildren for years. Many people knew or strongly suspected what was happening, but apparently, they all thought “it’s not my child, it’s none of my business, I can’t do anything.” Well, it was their children. It was any child he got his hands on, if even for a brief period. And as far as I’m concerned, every adult who even suspected what was happening and didn’t act is partially responsible for what happened to every one of us who were harmed.

As an adult, I have chosen to be a survivor rather than a victim. My life is not defined by what happened when I was small, although that experience has had a negative impact on me, and I’ve had to do much healing work to get past it. If I hadn’t gotten past it, I’d have allowed him to win, to continue to hurt me long past the time when I was out of his physical grasp.

Children deserve to be protected. They deserve to be rescued and to have their abusers permanently removed from society. They deserve the medical and psychological care they need to heal. They deserve to know that they have done absolutely nothing wrong and they are in no way to blame for the actions of a monster. If they don’t get the care and love they need to heal as a child, they must take responsibility for getting what they need as adults. Those who use the excuse of having been abused in an attempt to justify having become abusers themselves are no better than the scum that started the cycle, no matter how many generations ago it started. At some point, each person becomes an adult and must take responsibility for themselves and their actions.

You need to claim the events of your life to make them yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality.—Florinda Scott Maxwell

Many times people are embarrassed to even admit they’ve been abused as if it is something they brought upon themselves or something that dirtied them. That is the furthest thing from the truth, but it is an attitude that promotes silence, which prolongs the cycles of abuse. It is much more difficult for an educated child with a good sense of self-esteem to be abused than it is to abuse children who aren’t as sure of themselves. Please talk to your children today, before it’s too late.

To learn more, call the Georgia Council on Child Abuse at 1-800-532-3208 or 404-870-6565 in Atlanta.

I can’t help but wonder how many kids who do tell ever get any help or actually find themselves stigmatized by having a history of mental health treatment if they do get help. I’ve been treated for depression and complex post-traumatic stress disorder related to the abuse I experienced. I tried very seriously to commit suicide in 1988. I am not ashamed of that fact—I sought the help I needed and I am much stronger and healthier for it. I will not hide it, and I certainly will not apologize for it.

I can only hope that increased awareness and openness about abuse will lead to more people actively educating their children in an attempt to help “abuse proof” those kids. There are ways to talk to children and attitudes you can instill in them that will help them be more likely to resist abuse or to get help if they are abused. Teaching children that they own their own bodies is a good start.

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