On March 25, 2016, approximately 500 people convened at USC Upstate’s Center for Child Advocacy Studies for the seventh annual A Brighter Future: Ending Child Abuse Through Advocacy and Education Conference. The day was filled with world renowned speakers including Dr. Bruce Perry the Founder and Senior Fellow of The Child Trauma Academy, Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Director of Health Services for Covenant House, Dr. Nancy Henderson of Greenville Health System, and Dr. Machelle Madsen of Love at Work Missions.
Each speaker had a unique perspective on confronting child abuse and neglect. However, one theme was echoed by all – the power of relationships.
Child abuse and neglect does not happen within a vacuum. In order to combat it and its effects, we must be aware of the transgenerational nature of the issue. It is not enough to focus solely on early childhood and to attempt to negate adverse childhood experiences. We must take a holistic approach to childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. If we believe that it is too late to intervene by the time an individual reaches adolescence, we have lost the next generation as well, because those individuals will be parents within five to ten years… perhaps sooner.
According to the experts, our greatest biological gifts include the power of relationships and the brain’s malleability during early childhood. These two factors allow individuals to adapt and overcome adverse experiences. In it’s most basic form, these gifts are the key to resilience – the ability to overcome adversity and the capacity to bounce back in a positive way. We cannot underestimate the complexity of the human brain and must remember that children and young adults will be more resilient if the important adults in their lives believe in them unconditionally and (perhaps more importantly) hold them to high expectations. The challenge for those working within the system to combat abuse and neglect, is to remain unafraid and to be intentional in their interactions. It is not always a family member or a peer that provides the greatest source of strength for a victim, it can be the social worker, physician, teacher, or advocate.
When designing interventions and programming, it is important to remember that each person has a unique pathway to their present situation and, therefore, deserves individualized care. The one size fits all approach rarely meets individual needs. First, we must understand the psychological trauma and contextualize the problem. Next, we must meet individuals where they are developmentally, not chronologically. Finally, it is imperative that we build relationships (or in the words of Dr. Perry “relational wealth”) into the initial assessment and course of intervention and treatment.
Why does it matter? According to the presentation and materials given by Dr. Henderson, more than 3.5 million referrals were made to Child Protective Service agencies in the United States in 2013. This accounted for a 11.6 percent increase in the number of referrals in 2009. Of those referrals, 2.1 million cases were screen into the system. Of those, more than 1,500 children died in 2013 due to abuse and/or neglect. The largest percentage of fatalities were under a year old. Based on data from the National KIDS COUNT, of those children who were confirmed by child protective services as victims of maltreatment, we can see how those cases were classified by maltreatment type in Table 1. Neglect accounts for the greatest percentage of maltreatment cases.
Table 1: Children in the United States Who Were Confirmed by Child Protective Services as Victims of Maltreatment by Maltreatment Type
*Data provided by National KIDS COUNT
This is a very real issue with very real consequences. USC Upstate, the Center for Child Advocacy Studies, and the Center for Child Protection Training (featuring the Mock House) are providing detailed instruction and professional development opportunities to those working in the field. A Brighter Future is an extension of this work. For those interested in the issues of child abuse and neglect, I urge you to take part in this growing conference in 2017.
 Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs encompass emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, exposure to substance abuse in the household, exposure to mental illness in the household, exposure to domestic violence in the household, one or more parents sent to prison, divorce and/or parental abandonment.
 National KIDS Count, “Children Who Are Confirmed By Child Protective Services As Victims of Maltreatment By Maltreatment Type,” National KIDS COUNT. Accessed 4/1/2016. http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/Tables/6222-children-who-are-confirmed-by-child-protective-services-as-victims-of-maltreatment-by-maltreatment-type?loc=1&loct=1#detailed/1/any/false/868,867,133,38,35/3885,3886,3887,3888,3889,3890,872/12950