In 1974, I was in third grade at Robinson Elementary School in Fresno when Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.
President Ronald Reagan designated April as Child Abuse Awareness Month in 1983 when I was a sophomore at Hoover High School.
And in 1991, while in college at Fresno State, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, Dr. Louis Sullivan, created an unprecedented national initiative to increase awareness about child abuse and neglect.
But none of these critical milestones for the safety and welfare of this country’s children had any direct impact on my family or me. I was lucky.
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Flash forward some 40 years and I have three children of my own. I’m still a part of the community where I was born and raised. And the health and welfare of the children of this entire region is my No. 1 priority. It’s something that I think about on a daily (if not hourly) basis.
As you might imagine, numbers, statistics and reports are a big part of any health care organization. These analytics provide Valley Children’s Healthcare the insight to plan for care and positive patient outcomes – average hospital stays, clinic visits and patients seen in the emergency department – to name a few.
Like any statistics, these numbers can rise and fall for a variety of reasons. But there are some statistics that seem to continue to rise at an alarming rate. And those from our Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Center are among them.
As evidenced by the national attention child abuse and neglect have received in the 40 years since CAPTA was passed, it’s clear that the problem isn’t going away. Nationally:
▪ More than four children die every day as a result of child abuse.
▪ The highest rates of child abuse occur under age 1.
▪ More than one-quarter of victims are younger than 3 years old.
Unfortunately, the communities served by Valley Children’s Healthcare are just a microcosm of the larger picture:
▪ In 2013, there were 483,000 reports of suspected child abuse in California alone; 90,000 came from areas served by Valley Children’s.
▪ In 2010, Valley Children’s saw 159 abused children; 65 were hospitalized.
▪ In 2015, we treated 974 children; 135 required hospitalization.
Of all these horrific numbers, these depressing statistics, there’s one in particular that I cannot, as a parent or a health care administrator or a lifelong resident of the Central Valley, accept.
Every year, between four and five children treated at Valley Children’s die from complications directly related to child abuse.
Right here. In our community. In our backyard. Children die from abuse and from neglect.
It has to stop.
The Guilds Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Center at Valley Children’s, under the medical direction of Dr. Philip Hyden, is committed to diagnosing and treating abuse and suspected abuse cases 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The center is staffed with an amazing, committed and exceptionally skilled team. I couldn’t be more proud of the work happening here – from education to outreach to emergency care.
But we need to stop children from becoming victims in the first place.
Child abuse not only affects the child and the entire family in the short term, but later in life we see more patterns of abuse, chronic health problems, depression, developmental disabilities and even suicide. Abused and neglected children have no way to escape or change their circumstances. No voice. No way out. And so it cycles. And cycles.
Which means one thing: It’s up to us. Up to you, up to me. And we need help from every single member of this community – parents, caregivers, educators, community leaders and elected officials.
The best way to prevent child abuse is to support families and give parents the resources they need. Helping parents develop parenting skills and understand the value of nonviolent discipline, and providing them the tools to meet the needs of their child emotionally, physically and mentally are all key. Focusing on prevention efforts that create healthier environments for children and foster confident, positive parenting is paramount in stopping the abuse and neglect cycle.
And there’s even more that can be done on a personal level:
▪ Volunteer your time helping vulnerable children and families.
▪ Teach children their rights. Letting them know they’re special and have a right to be safe means they’re more likely to report an offender.
▪ Invest in kids by encouraging leaders in the community to be supportive of children and families via after-school programs, education and outreach.
Child Abuse Awareness Month has given us the opportunity to focus national attention on this horrific problem. But it’s something that we must focus on every month, every week, every day if we are truly going to make an impactful difference.
Todd Suntrapak is president/CEO of Valley Children’s Healthcare.