Published date: May 01, 2018
By Karen Farst , MD, MPH
Protecting Children You Love from Child Abuse
Karen Farst, MD, MPH, a pediatrician board-certified in child abuse and the medical director of the Rice Medical Clinic at the Arkansas Children’s Clark Center for Safe & Healthy Children, sat down with us to talk about how families can protect children from abuse.
How common is child abuse in Arkansas compared to other states?
From the campus at Arkansas Children’s in Little Rock, we make about three new reports of neglect or abuse on a daily basis. When I think about what that looks like around the state, with all providers – clinics and ERs and schools and daycares – it’s a staggering number, but it’s also a staggering issue.
The last year we have complete data for is 2016. That year, 13 out of every 1, 0000 Arkansas children were found to have experienced a substantiated case of abuse. The national average is nine children per 1,000. So it’s easy to see this does happen more often in Arkansas.
Why exactly are Arkansas children more likely to experience abuse?
It depends on what type of maltreatment. When you look at physical abuse and neglect, we’re often talking about the struggles families have with issues ranging from domestic violence to drug abuse. We see more of those dangers here, which increase a child’s risk because they’re co-mingled with children being injured or neglected.
From a sexual abuse standpoint, the risk factors for that are little more vague. We do see it occur more in homes with violence and drug abuse, but a lot of times in sexual abuse, we have a scenario where an offender is a predator with multiple victims. So it’s important to do a good job when those cases come forward before the list of victims gets longer and longer — a tough challenge.
How can families be part of the solution for child abuse in Arkansas?
A really big one is to consider being a foster parent. Kids who aren’t safe in their homes need a safe place to be while their family gets better. A large number of foster kids actually do reunite with their families. You can do that on the level of actually being a foster parent or you can be part of an organization that helps provide respite for foster parents or mentors foster kids. Volunteering with Court Appointed Special Advocates (or CASA) is another way. They really look at the situation of what’s in the best interest of the child. You can make a huge difference by volunteering. There are also a growing number of children’s advocacy centers or CAC’s in communities around the state. They often have volunteer opportunities for prevention and program support.
What do parents need to know to prevent or intervene in situations involving their children?
Parents have to be involved. I tell parents, “Know who your kids are hanging out with.” Even if it’s a group you know is a very solid group, know who the leaders are in that group.
Of course, you don’t want to make your kids afraid. I grew up playing team sports and my coaches were just wonderful; they were a huge influence in my life. We don’t want families to be scared of the really great programs that are out there. But in our day and age, thinking about something like the USA Gymnastics situation – that’s an incident where the team doctor used his position as being somebody that everybody should trust. That’s one of the big things to be aware of as a parent.
You want to be alert about anyone who is carving children away one-on-one, creating a scenario where there’s not other people around for accountability. Have your radar up: Be sure you don’t see a situation where someone is peeling kids away from a group setting one-on-one.
Why is it so hard for children to disclose abuse?
An abuser often uses that position of authority and trust to make a child feel powerless. They’ll tell the child, “Who will believe you?” They’ll say, “If you tell, I’m going to make it your fault. I’m going to make it bad for your family.”
That is really the key – keep it from getting to that point. Prevent the situations that create opportunities for predators to connect with kids. Because once they are using that position, it’s really difficult for a child to disclose. They’re bringing attention to themselves over something they are embarrassed about or they feel like they may be hurting their family. And as a child, they also believe, “People are more likely to trust an adult instead of me.”
What else can parents do?
What should I do if a child discloses to me that they’re being abused?
The main thing that’s important is to stay calm. The child may say some things you don’t want to hear, that really break your heart. But it’s important for the child to know that you can handle it, because it’s taken a lot of courage for that child to come forward and disclose and say this.
Even though you may be going crazy inside, you should say, “Thank you for telling me, and I’m going to find the right people and resources to help you and keep you safe.” Then call the Child Abuse hotline at 1-800-482-5964.
You don’t have to be a professional like a teacher or doctor to call the hotline. But the hotline does need to know how to find that child. You’ll want to provide as much info as possible on where that child lives.
If it’s more vague and you’re seeing all the change in behavior, but the child hasn’t told you anything, it’s fair game to sit down and say, “I’m just worried about you. I want you to know you can tell me anything and if you’re not comfortable telling me, let’s talk about some other adults that you can trust that you can share with.” Try to really crack the door a little bit so they know you’re there.
A lot of times kids aren’t as comfortable telling their parents directly, so they’ll tell a friend’s parent or a coach. I see parents’ hearts be broken by this all the time. It doesn’t mean the child doesn’t love or trust the parent, it just means this is such a tough emotional subject that they don’t want to bring on all the emotions they know will come with the discussion.
I can’t stress enough that if you have a suspicion to call the child abuse hotline. That’s really the first step in helping stop the cycle: 1-800-482-5964.