More than 100,000 reports of child abuse and neglect were made in Georgia in 2004, according to the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS). Of those reports, 36 percent were substantiated, representing more than 51,000 child victims. Eighty-three percent of the abusers were the child's biological parent, and 13 percent were a non-biological parent, other relative or live-in boyfriend or girlfriend of the parent.
The reports are alarming, and according to Nancy Fajman, MD, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine and a pediatrician at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding, the statistics are an unfortunate and underestimated reality. Yet, Dr. Fajman says the month of April, widely recognized as National Child Abuse Prevention Month, is a perfect opportunity to educate parents, teachers, medical providers, and other caregivers on the importance of child abuse awareness and prevention.
Dr. Fajman says there are several steps parents, adults and caregivers can take to protect children from abuse and abusive situations. For starters, according to Dr. Fajman, the first step is for parents and other adults to acknowledge that they are capable of becoming abusers. She says children under the age of 5 are at higher risk for physical abuse.
"Anyone who is around children can potentially abuse them," explains Dr. Fajman, who is a governor-appointed member of the Georgia Child Fatality Review Panel and serves on the advisory board of Stop It Now! Georgia: The Campaign to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse. "We all love children, especially our own, but we all get tired and come to the end of our rope. I think just about everyone faces the possibility of injuring their child out of frustration, anger, or out of their own fears. "Although people may not mean to hurt their child, they just get to their wits end," adds Dr. Fajman, who is also an expert in child abuse evaluation. "I suggest putting children down in the crib if they're crying constantly, counting to 10, taking a few deep breaths, or calling a friend or crisis hotline to talk with someone to express your anger and frustration. Having a support group is particularly important, especially for parents of young children."
Here are several of Dr. Fajman's suggestions to both increase child abuse awareness and to prevent physical and sexual child abuse:
- Be willing to intervene at the grocery store or mall if you see a frustrated parent or caregiver. Be respectful if the parent tells you to mind your own business, but if you think a child is endangered, call the police or Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS).
- Acknowledge that child abuse exists, and that awareness is the first step of prevention. Abuse transcends racial, socio-economic and religious lines, which means no one is immune to child abuse.
- Be aware that sexual abuse is another form of abuse. It is frequently very silent, and many families do not like to talk about it. Although many children are encouraged to discuss if they have been sexually violated, a lot of them are afraid to tell their parents that something bad has happened. Some children have been bribed or threatened, while others may worry that they or their parents may get in trouble if they report a perpetrator.
- Take responsibility. If you suspect an adult is engaging in suspicious or inappropriate behavior with a child, tell him or her so.
- Know that children won't always come to you when something is wrong. Parents and caregivers should always be mindful of the possibility of sexual abusers, many of whom are either in the family or family acquaintances.
- Develop a healthy degree of suspicion relative to the people who care for your children. Frequently, there are no blatant warning signs. Sexual abuse, for example, doesn't always leave marks, cause diseases, bleeding, or infection. A child can be fondled, tickled, played with, or pornography can be shown or taken. It is always important to know who your children are with, such as a friend, babysitter, or older kids.
- Teach body safety and proper names of body parts so children can properly explain themselves using a universal language. Also, teach your child that no one is allowed to touch areas of their body covered by a swim suit.
- Look for signs of physical abuse. Bruises on back, buttocks, chest and genital area, etc., should be examined by a physician. A bruise or mark with a pattern is also suspicious. This may be a sign that someone used a belt, spoon, extension cord. If you leave a mark on a child, that can be seen as a sign of abuse.
- Although most pediatricians don't recommending spanking, if you do spank, only use an open hand on a child's clothed bottom.
- Be aware that neglect is another type of maltreatment. Neglect may include inadequate supervision; unsafe conditions that allow "accidents" to happen, such as leaving a curling iron plugged in or a pot of boiling water on the front of the stove; leaving a child unsupervised; allowing a child to sleep in an unsafe environment; leaving a child unattended in a bath tub; not requiring a child to wear a bike helmet, etc.
For more information on child abuse awareness and prevention, please visit www.preventchildabusega.org, or call Prevent Child Abuse Georgia's Helpline at 1-800-CHILDREN.