Shockingly, in our country nearly a fourth of all child abuse victims are under the age of 1. And in Santa Cruz, nearly 40 percent of the children who were found to be victims of abuse were under the age of 2. Knowing that raising healthy children starts from day one and hearing these statistics, how can we not be moved to act?
Abuse and neglect is always tragic, and we share a common understanding that it should not occur. But abuse and neglect of infants is especially devastating. Our very early life experiences literally organize the biological framework of the brain we operate for the rest of our lives. Without early interventions and early positive interactions which will allow the infant’s brain to reorganize, that child will suffer the impacts of abuse throughout its lifetime. These children are more likely to experience emotional, social, and academic difficulties, and as they grow up they have a much higher chance of engaging in delinquent behavior and struggling with substance abuse. As adults, they are more likely to be imprisoned, suffer mental and physical health difficulties, and, sadly, the cycle of abuse may continue with their own children.
This is heartbreaking in so many ways. Our prisons, probation departments, homeless shelters, and substance abuse clinics are daily witnesses to the outcomes. Having worked as a social worker for 30 years, when I pass the homeless encampment off Highway 1, I wonder how many of the beautifully vivacious babies and children I worked with when I first began my career are now living in such encampments. A part of me wants to stop the car, walk out, and say, “I am so sorry that we didn’t do better.”
This is because I know that we could have done a better job supporting the babies who were victims of abuse and neglect 20 or 30 years ago. And let’s be truthful, we could be doing so much more today.
We know that the earlier we provide healing interventions, the better the outcomes. The little brains of infants and toddlers that are so receptive to damaging influences are also so very wonderfully receptive to caring, responsive, dependable interactions. These interactions heal and shape healthy social and cognitive development. But time is of the essence – when the environment of infants who have been abused becomes nurturing before the age of 2, they have higher IQs and are more likely to develop healthy relationships as they grow up than infants whose environment changes after the age of 2. And this is only the beginning. Providing healing experiences to infants and babies has the potential to help rewire their brains so that the social and emotional impacts of their early life experiences can be entirely overcome.
Child abuse is not only unacceptable, it is also preventable. There is so much we can all do as a community to prevent and address the trauma of child abuse. As Executive Director of CASA of Santa Cruz County, I urge you to get involved. Of course, one way is to volunteer with CASA as an advocate for a child who has been abused or neglected, but there are many other ways. You can support programs and services that help families and children. Be a good neighbor by offering to baby-sit and looking out for parents who are struggling. Be compassionate to young families and new parents, and help to connect families in crisis to needed services and opportunities. Truly, the first step is recognizing that every community has a stake in the safety and health of our most vulnerable citizens – our children – and we can all participate in overcoming the devastating tragedy of child abuse.
Lynne Petrovic is the Executive Director for Court Appointed Special Advocates - CASA of Santa Cruz County, a local non-profit organization that trains and supports volunteers to advocate for the best interests of children and youth in foster care. For more information about CASA, go to casaofsantacruz.org or call 761-2956.