April 8, 2023

Physical and Sexual Child Abuse in America

by Hal Gershowitz

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It is an epidemic, and it’s the shame of the nation.

We have far bigger problems in America than the political tomfoolery we read about and watch play out on cable news and social media. We have a huge problem in America with physical and sexual abuse of children. This is a serious national problem in our country. It affects all socio-economic levels, all races, and all ethnicities. No group is immune. Victims are found in the homes of the wealthy and the homes of the poor. Young victims cower in fear in Democratic and Republican households alike, urban and rural families, religious and agnostic homes, and the homes of native-born and immigrant families. April is National Prevent Child Abuse Month. It is way past time to treat the problem of child abuse in America seriously, even urgently. They say there is little our two primary political parties can agree on in America. If we can’t unite on the need to fight child abuse, then we probably can’t unite on anything

I devoted my Podcast this week to a discussion with John Thoreson, Executive Director of the Barbara Sinatra Childrens Center. The Sinatra Center, which is affiliated with the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California, and the Loma Linda Medical Center in Loma Linda, California, treats children who have been victims of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. In the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I both serve on the Board of the Sinatra Center. Whether one leans politically to the left or to the right, fighting child abuse should unite all Americans. It is a horrible problem in our country. Sexual abuse of children has been studied extensively. While estimates vary somewhat, research shows that about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys in our country experience sexual abuse while growing up.

Tragically, many families send the wrong message when trying to protect their children from a prospective abuser. Too often, we teach “stranger danger.” We warn our children that it is the stranger about whom kids should be wary. While that may be, of course, generally good advice, the fact is that over 90% of child abuse cases involve a perpetrator who is known and trusted by the child. The abuser is often a family member, a friend, a coach, a teacher, a pastor, and, of course, sometimes a stranger as well.

There is a pernicious aspect of child abuse that greatly amplifies the tragedy. In many cases, especially in cases of repeated abuse, the victim is often left with significant long-term impairments. In the mid-nineties, the Center for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente conducted one of the largest investigations of Adverse Childhood Experiences and the ramifications of those adverse experiences later in life. The categories of “adverse experiences” included: ABUSE, HOUSEHOLD CHALLENGES (violence against the mother, substance abuse, mental illness, parental separation or divorce, or an incarcerated parent), and NEGLECT, including emotional and physical neglect. The study included 9,367 women and 7,970 men.

Among the women, 24.7% had experienced sexual abuse, and 27% had experienced physical abuse. Among the men, 16% had experienced sexual abuse, and 29.9 % had experienced physical abuse. Sadly, but not surprisingly, these Adverse Childhood Experiences can have long-lasting impacts later in life, including depression, unintended pregnancies, infectious diseases such as HIV, chronic disease, risky behavior such as alcohol and drug abuse and unsafe sex, and lost educational and occupational opportunities. The consequences are catastrophic to the victims and to society.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, at least five of the top ten leading causes of death are associated with Adverse Childhood Experiences, and it is estimated that preventing these incidents could reduce the number of adults with depression by nearly 45%. Study after study has demonstrated that children who have lived with chronic Adverse Childhood Experiences often suffer quality of life losses later in life compared to those who reported no maltreatment while growing up. Suffice it to say, these Adverse Childhood Experiences are a national calamity.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, child abuse and violence affect millions of children each year. Child abuse, including physical, sexual, emotional abuse, and neglect, can, and often does, have long-lasting ramifications for the abused child. Children experiencing abuse or violence often develop mental health problems and, left untreated, these problems can include depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. These children may also have other serious medical problems, learning problems, and problems getting along with friends and family members.

In 2018, the non-partisan and non-profit Research-to-Policy Collaboration estimated the yearly economic burden to the United States caused by these adverse childhood experiences to be $124 billion annually. This estimate is based on 4 million reports involving 7.4 million cases reported to Child and Protective Services in the United States. And that was five years ago.

After abuse or other physical violence, children need support from their parents and other family members. Sometimes parents are not able to be supportive because they have their own mental health problems, or they may also have been the victims of the abuse or violence themselves. Sometimes, parents may have caused the abuse or violence. Children who do not have supportive families or who blame themselves for the abuse or violence they have experienced are far more likely to have serious mental health problems themselves.

Sadly, it is estimated that up to thirty-five percent of children who have been abused and untreated become abusive adults themselves later in life. Fortunately, research does demonstrate that young men and women who were abused as children are far less apt to become abusers themselves when they have been counseled by skilled therapists.

Child abuse is an epidemic, and it’s the shame of the nation.

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John Thoresen, Executive Director, Barbara Sinatra Childrens Center

William Bratton, Retired Chief of Police, New York City, Los Angeles, and Boston

Rikki Klieman, Attorney, Network News Analyst, and best-selling author

Katherine Gehl, co-author of The Politics Industry and founder of the Institute for Political Innovation

Jazz artist Ann Hampton Callaway

Outlander author Diana Gabaldon

AI Data Scientist Lawrence Kite

Ryan Clancy, Chief Strategist of No Labels

Senator Barbara Boxer

Senator Joe Lieberman

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan

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