Leader Blues

Friday, August 15, 2008

TOP STORY > >Child abuse: The youngest victims

Leader staff writer

In Arkansas, homicide is a leading cause of death from infancy into adulthood. The youngest are the most vulnerable. Among children ages 1 to 4 years, homicide takes the lives of more children than all cancers or birth defects.

For Arkansas preschoolers, that meant that from 2001 to 2005, eight percent of all deaths were attributed to homicide. Most of these children died at the hand of a parent or other caregiver.

In two separate incidents within the past two months, two area toddlers were so severely injured that one died and the other remains hospitalized.

Nicole Lloyd of Jacksonville has admitted to battering the hospitalized child, who is her stepson.

Lekedrin Smith of Sherwood, a caregiver unrelated to the child who died, has been charged with capital murder.

In her years treating injured and abused children, pediatrician Karen Farst has observed that persons unrelated to the child are often responsible for the abuse. Oftentimes it is a young, stressed mom who makes the critical error in judgment.

“One of the biggest risk factors is the single caregiver who does not have a good network of social support,” said Farst, who is with the UAMS TEAM for Children at Risk. “They invite others into their lives, perhaps a boyfriend without the understanding of what to expect of a child at different stages of development and who may have problems with anger management.”

In Farst’s experience, “unrelated male caregivers” are often involved in a large proportion of physical abuse cases, she said.

Nationally, Arkansas ranks 26th for violence as a cause of death for children ages 1 to 4 years, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Only accidents outpace homicide as a cause of death for this age group. Physical abuse is but one form of child maltreatment, and accounts for 6.6 percent of all maltreatment cases nationally. Maltreatment also includes neglect, sexual abuse, psychological maltreatment, and medical neglect.

Thirteen of every 1,000 children in Arkansas have experienced maltreatment, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The national rate is 12 out of 1,000. The vast majority of these cases are neglect, and most often the parents are the ones responsible.

Mike Holladay, who lives in Scott, took a parenting course at Lonoke Apostolic Church. He wishes he had taken the class when his kids were still little, because it would have changed his parenting style for the better.

“I was probably too mean instead of talking to them,” Holladay reflected. “I was more the ‘I’ll bust your butt type,’ rather than talking to them.” He strongly recommends parenting classes to young moms and dads especially.

“These kids having kids these days, they need something to help them understand, to give them guidelines, something stable so they can understand what is going on around them,” Holladay said.

Child abuse is more common among families under considerable stress who lack the skills and social support to cope. Mental illness or reliance on drugs or alcohol to cope further heightens the chance that a child will be abused. Single parents who have few friends or family to help out can be at increased risk of committing abuse.

Sometimes a basic lack of understanding about normal child development can lead to unreasonable expectations about what a child should and can do from infancy on up. Substance abuse can further cloud judgment.

“The drugs and alcohol are a way often to self-medicate, but they impair folks’ ability to know what is realistic to expect from kids, for example, that it is normal for a nine-month-old to mess a diaper,” Farst said. Farst has observed a spike in cases of severe physical abuse in children in recent months, but is not ready to call it a trend.

“It feels like we have had more severe cases of physical abuse recently than in years past,” Farst said. She wonders if the economic downturn is a factor.

“When everyone feels stress it tends to be felt in the family, but since it has been a while since there’s been a recession, it is hard to say,” Farst said. When child abuse makes the news, it is easy just to think, “Oh, that is a problem for the police and social services,” Farst said, but actually there is a lot that regular citizens can do in their communities to reduce the risk of abuse occurring.

A simple thing like making educational literature available to new moms in the hospital nursery is a good volunteer activity that can make a difference.

For example, handouts on topics such as how to cope with a crying baby, the harm of shaking a baby, or decision making about babysitters can provide valuable parenting tips that might come into play at a critical moment.

Speaking to elected officials about the importance of adequate local social services can also go a long way in reducing the incidence of child abuse.

“People should let lawmakers know the importance of support for mental health and other social services, to tell them to not put those programs on the backburner,” Farst said. “The Department of Social Services is already overloaded.” Grant opportunities for child-abuse prevention programs are available from the Arkansas Child Trust Fund. Currently funded programs include home visitation programs for young moms and dads as well as classes and a support center for families.

One- and two-year grants are awarded to individuals and organizations that provide parental support and education to prevent child abuse and neglect.

The fund is administered by the Arkansas Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board and supported by revenues from marriage licenses. Classes are an excellent way for new moms and dads to learn about child development and skills for parenting and managing stress.

A Woman’s Place with locations in Cabot and Beebe provides one-on-one counseling and educational sessions, focusing expectant parents and those with children up to age 12. “Parenting begins the moment you become pregnant, and during pregnancy you should already begin practicing parenting skills,” says Vikki Parker, director of A Woman’s Place.

The sessions are individualized and offered at no cost.

“We offer training every day; it is individual and custom fit because each situation is different,” Parker said. Most of the persons served by A Woman’s Place are word-of-mouth referrals, many from the local middle and high schools in Cabot, as well as Jacksonville, and as far away as Vilonia and North Little Rock.

In her experience working with parents, Parker has found that abuse knows no demographic boundaries, but is committed by persons of all walks of life. It is not only individuals who grew up in abusive families who commit abuse. There is no defining characteristic of who might be abusive to their child, other than how they manage anger and stress.

“Anybody can be, it depends on their personality and how self-absorbed they are, if they have not matured past the point of it’s all about me,” Parker said. “So we focus on teenage parents to give them every possible edge, because most of them have not had to give of themselves.”

Parker agrees with Farst that who a mom decides to allow into her and her baby’s life is critically important to the child’s safety.

“Just because you get along good with that boyfriend does not mean that is a person you can trust with your baby out of your sight,” Parker said.


Hotlines to report suspected child abuse and neglect

If you need to report suspected child abuse in a state other than Arkansas, please call: Childhelp® USA National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD®(1-800-422-4453) or for TDD: 1-800-2-A-CHILD.

If you need to report suspected child abuse in the state of Arkansas, please call: Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-482-5964.

Individualized parent
counseling and instruction

A Woman’s Place, in Cabot and Beebe. Call Vikki Parker, program director, for more information at 941-5533 or 882-7695, Beebe.
n Classes on anger management, parenting, and drug and alcohol abuse. Sponsored by the Lonoke Apostolic Church. Call Ralph Brown, program director, for more information at 912-0855.

New Moms Support Group. Meets each Thursday from 10 a.m.-11:30 a.m. at the Parent Center, 5905 Forest Place, Suite 205, in Little Rock. Sponsored by UAMS ANGELS (Antenatal and Neonatal Guidelines, Education and Learning System) and the Centers for Youth and Families, 526-7425.