April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and during this time we pause to remember the children we have lost to abuse and neglect and to refocus our collective efforts to protect our most vulnerable. As your Prosecutor, this is an issue I see first-hand. Studies have shown approximately five children lose their lives to child abuse in the United States every day. Even one child is too many.
In 2019, 61 child fatalities were found to have been due to abuse or neglect in Indiana. Of those fatalities, 61% were in children under the age of two years old. The remaining fatalities in the state were children between two and 17 years of age. Last year, the Indiana Department of Child Services substantiated 26,871 cases of child abuse or neglect. Among those, 198 occurred in Jefferson County.
Child maltreatment can take several forms, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. Physical abuse is defined as the intentional use of physical force that can result in harm, including hitting, kicking, shaking, burning, or any other forceful act against a child. Sexual abuse involves pressuring or forcing a child to engage in sexual acts. Emotional abuse is any behavior that harms a child’s self-worth or emotional well-being, including withholding love, threatening, name calling, shaming, and rejection. Finally, neglect is the failure to meet a child’s basic physical and emotional needs.
Not only do these children endure immediate suffering and pain from maltreatment, but it also impacts these children as they grow and become adults. Children that are abused or neglected are nine times more likely to be involved in criminal activity, 25% more like to experience a teen pregnancy and 30%% of parents who were abused and neglected as children go on to abuse or neglect their own children.
Several risk factors make children more vulnerable to abuse and neglect, including age and childhood disabilities as well as parental stressors. Children under the age of four and children with special needs are more likely to be victims of abuse than other age groups and demographics. Children who live in poverty are also more likely to be at risk. Parental risk factors include a parent’s lack of understanding of the child’s needs or child development, a parental history of child abuse or neglect, substance abuse and/or mental health issues including depression, and non-biological, caregivers in the home, such as a boyfriend or girlfriend of the parent. Other risk factors include family stress, social isolation, separation, divorce, and domestic violence.
Breaking the cycle
All citizens are required to report abuse and neglect if we know it is occurring, but we can do more to prevent child abuse and neglect than simply making a report. We can take action in our community by providing extra support to young families who may not have other family to help when they are in need. We can connect families to resources and ensure there are ample opportunities to help families alleviate stress. We can work to reduce substance abuse by ensuring there are programs available both inside and outside the criminal justice system. Finally, we can educate parents and caregivers in creating and supporting a nurturing home environment for all children.
All kids need caring adults in their lives and sometimes, for a variety of reasons, this cannot be their parents. When a child has been harmed, the prosecutor, law enforcement, and child services step in to help make sure these vulnerable children are protected. We rely on foster parents, relatives, and other caring adults to help provide the nurturing, caring, and supportive environments for child victims and their parents to begin to heal.
If you know or suspect a child may be a victim of abuse or neglect, please call the Indiana Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-800-5556. For more information about becoming a foster parent of a child in need, visit www.indianafostercare.org.