Blue pinwheels and ribbons will flutter in the breezy downtown corridor of Main Street this month, indicating the return of Child Abuse Prevention Month, an annual observance held each April to raise awareness and promote community efforts toward reducing child abuse.
“I think the key is being aware that things are actually happening out there that aren’t good for kids,” said Pete Barrell, community services director for Cottage Grove. “And on the flip side that there are agencies and groups and people working together to try and make things better for kids and families.”
The organization behind the blue-decked streets, 90by30, is a University of Oregon-based nonprofit dedicated to reducing child abuse 90 percent in Lane County by 2030. Decorating downtown is just its first step in bringing attention to the issue.
“We will also be engaging with the school district,” said 90by30 South Lane Coordinator Rachel Nordquist.
On top of more pinwheel gardens and banners at all area schools, “We’re working to engage the youth in our overall efforts,” she said. “We want their voice at the table. … Because they probably have ideas, thoughts and perspective that we haven’t thought of.”
90by30 is also participating in Earth Day and the Family Relief Nursery-headed Children’s Health Fair this month, the latter serving as a hub for a variety of family and children relief services to the community.
“We have a really strong set of community partners here,” Nordquist said.
Additionally, the nonprofit will be launching its “K(no)w More” media campaign this month with a flurry of television ads, radio spots and a social media presence emphasizing the potential impact of individuals’ awareness about and censure of child abuse.
“It’s very nicely laid out to engage people and let them know specifically how they can get involved,” said Nordquist.
Citing the campaign’s tagline, “a connected child is a protected child,” she added, “the more connected any child is and has adults and people looking out for them, the better off they will be in terms of well-being, mental health and long-term stability.”
As well as raising awareness about the problem, 90by30 aims to foster a community of support and family services through prevention plans.
“The forefront of our prevention plan was the Welcome Baby Box,” Nordquist said.
Implemented in 90by30’s South Lane district in 2017, the Welcome Baby Box program has seen success with the distribution of dozens of boxes into the community since the program’s inception.
Serving essentially as baby starter kits for new or expecting parents, the boxes include clothing, toys and even hand-knitted items made by members of the community. The box itself doubles as a crib.
“It’s a gift from your community to welcome your family and your infant,” said Nordquist, adding she hopes a lingering stigma of charity among those in need could be lifted with this service.
Extent of Abuse
Child abuse remains a pervasive issue worldwide and continues to be a problem in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, an estimated 674,000 children were victims of child abuse or neglect nationally in 2017, a 2.7 percent increase over the previous four years.
Each year in Oregon, a little more than half of received reports are referred for investigation and a quarter of those are founded for abuse or neglect. Oregon totaled 7,063 cases and 11,077 victims in 2017. Other reported cases were either dismissed or handled with alternative methods such as parental assistance.
Though definitions of abuse differ state by state, these numbers are reflective of nationwide trends and tend to stay relatively proportional as they scale more locally.
While the number of received reports across the nation scores in the millions, nearly half are screened out of the system, lending suspicion to a lack of understanding about when abuse is taking place. Indeed, public attention toward child abuse often skews in the direction of the more emotionally evocative forms of physical or sexual abuse.
“It’s one thing to be physically or mentally abusive,” said Nordquist, “but if the child is neglected and their basic needs aren’t being met and they’re not healthy or given the support and love that they need to grow emotionally, then they’re going to have issues and problems as adults.”
The Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) reported neglect as accounting for about 47 percent of cases in Lane County and 46 percent statewide in 2017.
These high numbers may be attributed to the broad criteria of what constitutes neglect, which may include non-compliance with healthcare recommendations, malnutrition, poor sanitation, being deprived of education and exposure to drugs or violence.
The prevalence of this form of abuse points to some parents’ and caregivers’ lack of education about child-rearing, though a general confusion as to what constitutes abuse could also play a role.
Precise definitions of abuse can be elusive. The perimeters vary by family and culture worldwide, including what constitutes responsible parenting and acceptable disciplinary action. Further muddying the waters is the pragmatic question of who a definition aims to inform. A definition to raise public awareness, for instance, differs from definitions serving legal, service or research purposes.
Nonetheless, in an effort to reconcile the diversity of perceptions, the World Health Organization (WHO) Consultation on Child Abuse Prevention in 1999 drafted a broad and adaptable definition:
‘‘Child abuse or maltreatment constitutes all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment or commercial or other exploitation, resulting in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust or power.’’
Although determining which cases meet the criteria may still be a source of disagreement, there is near consensus on classification. Types of abuse typically fall under four categories: physical, sexual, psychological (or emotional) and neglect.
Like neglect, psychological abuse is fairly nebulous in its definition and characterizing it can pose a challenge. The psychological and emotional well-being of a child is complex in contrast to physical health and its effects are not always immediately obvious.
Indeed, the WHO has lamented in its World Report on Violence and Health that psychological abuse is given less attention worldwide than physical or sexual abuse.
Locally, the prevalence of the problem is unclear.
Though ODHS keeps a record of “mental injury,” Oregon holds a separate, broad category for “threat of harm,” which under national criteria may qualify as psychological, physical, sexual abuse or neglect. Endangering a child by leaving them in a life-threatening situation, for example, may be recorded under the same category as exposing them to domestic violence. Representing 41.6 percent of incidents, this form of abuse is second only to neglect in Lane County.
The consequences of this form of abuse are wide-ranging and vary from person to person. Often, the victim’s interpersonal relationships suffer in myriad ways and the victim may later turn to substance abuse or self-harm to dampen overwhelming emotions such as anxiety or depression.
Physical abuse, which accounts for only six percent of cases in Lane County, is not the most prominent of abuse types, yet remains a controversial issue due to disagreements about discipline.
Forms of corporal punishment which do not cause physical injury or “substantial pain” are legally accepted in Oregon. ODHS has stated, “Although not recommended, spanking is not abuse. However, a spanking that leaves marks or bruises on a child might be abuse. Spanking a baby is always a concern.”
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child requires states to protect children from ‘‘all forms of physical or mental violence’’ while under care. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has affirmed that corporal punishment is incompatible with this requirement.
In the worst cases, physical health consequences of abuse on small children include brain damage, central nervous system injuries and bone fractures, all of which could lead to life-long disabilities.
Accounting for the fewest cases across data sets is sexual abuse. There were 61 incidents in Lane County for the 2017 fiscal year, making up just over four percent of the county’s total abuse and neglect cases.
Though relatively rare, sexual abuse is no less serious as it can cause reproductive health problems, sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies – all this before the potential psychological damage and resulting difficulties imposed upon the child’s life.
Fatalities resulting from abuse or neglect are even rarer, but also cause for concern. There were 30 deaths attributed to abuse or neglect in Oregon during the 2017 fiscal year, 20 of which were the result of neglect. More than half of all victims were under the age of five.
The issue of child abuse pervades nearly all cultures and communities worldwide and its prevalence has deep-running implications for any social fabric.
Abused children are more likely to grow up with heavier burdens in their lives and consequently project those burdens onto others and into their community in various ways.
Increased rates of child abuse have been linked to poorer health, both physically and psychologically. A 2012 systematic review found that emotionally abused subjects were three times more likely to develop a depressive disorder than non-abused individuals.
The same study concluded a strong causal relationship between non-sexual maltreatment and a range of mental disorders, risky sexual behavior and drug use.
“We know that child abuse, neglect and childhood trauma are risk factors for a lot of adult health outcomes such as homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction and mental health issues,” said Co-chair of 90by30’s Child Abuse Prevention Month committee Amanda Hampton. “Healthy and protected children become healthy and protected adults and I think as a community we all want those things.”
Socioeconomic effects play a role as well. A 2010 study comparing abused or neglected children to non-abused or non-neglected children indicated that adults with documented histories of childhood abuse and/or neglect had lower levels of education, employment, earnings and fewer assets as adults.
In the web of interrelated factors, poverty often emerges as a significant player in determining the likelihood of a healthy home environment.
When parents must choose between necessities such as gasoline or food, the accompanying stress of daily living may cause parents or even children to unburden themselves in unhealthy ways. Reducing that stress is one means of giving families a chance.
“Every child, every adult deserves the opportunity to thrive and not just be surviving,” Hampton said. “And that means getting basic needs met.”
Hampton’s observation highlights the importance of local support programs and preventative measures, giving credence to the adage that it takes a village to raise a child. And while the adage may hold true, providing a social scaffolding that enables children and families to thrive may depend not only on community members rowing in the same direction, but also allowing individuals avenues to be effectual actors in the process.
“I think its everybody’s place to learn the skills and the tools to be able to just be an advocate for a struggling parent or family real-time,” said Nordquist. “Somebody forming a connection. Somebody taking an interest. Somebody caring.
“Anybody can do that.”