Recent cases of child abuse in the community have many people concerned - and also wondering how they can help prevent it, and/or identify it.
The Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services launched the First Years Initiative earlier this month. The program will provide new resources for families during a critical period, from before a child is born through the first few years of his or her life.
Leaders say the initiative comes as a response to a recent review of child deaths reported to Montana Department of Justice’s Chief Child and Family Ombudsman. In just over one year, the ombudsman found 14 cases where children died after a report was filed with the state Child and Family Services Division. Ten of the children were younger than 1 year old.
The Child & Family Services Division of the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services operates a toll-free child abuse hotline 24 hours a day (1-866-820-5437). Specialists screen calls, assess the level of risk to children, and prioritize reports of abuse, neglect, and abandonment according to the urgency with which social workers need to respond. The specialists forward reports of suspected child abuse, neglect, or abandonment to social workers in county offices for investigation.
Social workers then investigate reports and help parents find solutions to problems that may interfere with their children's safety. If the parents are amenable, the social workers can help the family get in-home services , such as home management skill training, parenting education classes, modeling skills for parents, and supervised visitations. These can be provided directly by CFSD social workers or by private agencies on contract with the division. Division policy is to provide protective services to children in their own homes when it is possible to do so without risking their safety.
To help family members become involved in addressing the care and safety of their children, the division uses Family Group Decision-making Meetings. These meetings bring together family, friends, social workers, and service providers to share concerns, knowledge, and skills.
The Mayo Clinic website provides the following information:
Any intentional harm or mistreatment to a child under 18 years old is considered child abuse. Child abuse takes many forms, which often occur at the same time. Types of abuse include physical, sexual, emotional, medical, and neglect. In many cases, child abuse is done by someone the child knows and trusts — often a parent or other relative. If you suspect child abuse, report the abuse to the proper authorities.
A child who's being abused may feel guilty, ashamed or confused. He or she may be afraid to tell anyone about the abuse, especially if the abuser is a parent, other relative or family friend. In fact, the child may have an apparent fear of parents, adult caregivers or family friends. That's why it's vital to watch for red flags, such as:
Withdrawal from friends or usual activities
Changes in behavior — such as aggression, anger, hostility or hyperactivity — or changes in school performance
Depression, anxiety or unusual fears or a sudden loss of self-confidence
An apparent lack of supervision
Frequent absences from school or reluctance to ride the school bus
Reluctance to leave school activities, as if he or she doesn't want to go home
Attempts at running away
Rebellious or defiant behavior
Attempts at suicide
Specific signs and symptoms depend on the type of abuse and can vary. Keep in mind that warning signs are just that — warning signs. The presence of warning signs doesn't necessarily mean that a child is being abused.
Unexplained injuries, such as bruises, fractures or burns
Injuries that don't match the given explanation
Untreated medical or dental problems
Sexual behavior or knowledge that's inappropriate for the child's age
Pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection
Blood in the child's underwear
Statements that he or she was sexually abused
Trouble walking or sitting or complaints of genital pain
Abuse of other children sexually
Delayed or inappropriate emotional development
Loss of self-confidence or self-esteem
Social withdrawal or a loss of interest or enthusiasm
Headaches or stomachaches with no medical cause
Avoidance of certain situations, such as refusing to go to school or ride the bus
Desperately seeks affection
A decrease in school performance or loss of interest in school
Loss of previously acquired developmental skills
Poor growth or weight gain
Lack of clothing or supplies to meet physical needs
Taking food or money without permission
Eating a lot in one sitting or hiding food for later
Poor record of school attendance
Lack of appropriate attention for medical, dental or psychological problems or lack of necessary follow-up care
Emotional swings that are inappropriate or out of context to the situation
Sometimes a parent's demeanor or behavior sends red flags about child abuse. Warning signs include a parent who:
Shows little concern for the child
Appears unable to recognize physical or emotional distress in the child
Denies that any problems exist at home or school, or blames the child for the problems
Consistently blames, belittles or berates the child and describes the child with negative terms, such as "worthless" or "evil"
Expects the child to provide him or her with attention and care and seems jealous of other family members getting attention from the child
Uses harsh physical discipline or asks teachers to do so
Demands an inappropriate level of physical or academic performance
Severely limits the child's contact with others
Offers conflicting or unconvincing explanations for a child's injuries or no explanation at all
Although most child health experts condemn the use of violence in any form, some people still use corporal punishment, such as spanking, as a way to discipline their children. Any corporal punishment may leave emotional scars. Parental behaviors that cause pain or physical injury — even when done in the name of discipline — could be child abuse.
You can take simple steps to protect your child from exploitation and child abuse, as well as prevent child abuse in your neighborhood or community. The goal is to provide safe, stable, nurturing relationships for children. For example:
Offer your child love and attention. Nurture your child, listen and be involved in his or her life to develop trust and good communication. Encourage your child to tell you if there's a problem. A supportive family environment and social networks can foster your child's self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
Don't respond in anger. If you feel overwhelmed or out of control, take a break. Don't take out your anger on your child. Talk with your doctor or therapist about ways you can learn to cope with stress and better interact with your child.
Think supervision. Don't leave a young child home alone. In public, keep a close eye on your child. Volunteer at school and for activities to get to know the adults who spend time with your child. When old enough to go out without supervision, encourage your child to stay away from strangers and to hang out with friends rather than be alone — and to tell you where he or she is at all times. Find out who's supervising your child — for example, at a sleepover.
Know your child's caregivers. Check references for baby sitters and other caregivers. Make irregular, but frequent, unannounced visits to observe what's happening. Don't allow substitutes for your usual child care provider if you don't know the substitute.
Emphasize when to say no. Make sure your child understands that he or she doesn't have to do anything that seems scary or uncomfortable. Encourage your child to leave a threatening or frightening situation immediately and seek help from a trusted adult. If something happens, encourage your child to talk to you or another trusted adult about the episode. Assure your child that it's OK to talk and that he or she won't get in trouble.
Teach your child how to stay safe online. Put the computer in a common area of your home, not the child's bedroom. Use the parental controls to restrict the types of websites your child can visit, and check your child's privacy settings on social networking sites. Consider it a red flag if your child is secretive about online activities. Cover ground rules, such as not sharing personal information; not responding to inappropriate, hurtful or frightening messages; and not arranging to meet an online contact in person without your permission. Tell your child to let you know if an unknown person makes contact through a social networking site. Report online harassment or inappropriate senders to your service provider and to local authorities, if necessary.
Reach out. Meet the families in your neighborhood, including parents and children. Consider joining a parent support group so you have an appropriate place to vent your frustrations. Develop a network of supportive family and friends. If a friend or neighbor seems to be struggling, offer to baby-sit or help in another way.
If you're concerned that you might abuse your child, seek help immediately. These organizations can provide information and referrals:
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453)
Prevent Child Abuse America: 800-CHILDREN (800-244-5373)
Or you can start by talking with your family doctor. He or she may offer a referral to a parent education class, counseling or a support group for parents to help you learn appropriate ways to deal with your anger. If you're abusing alcohol or drugs, ask your doctor about treatment options.
If you were a victim of any type of child abuse, get counseling to ensure you don't continue the abuse cycle or teach those destructive behaviors to your child.
Remember, child abuse is preventable — and often a symptom of a problem that may be treatable. Ask for help today.
You can also report possible child abuse or neglect to the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services by calling 1-866-820-5437.