April, 2024 Monthly Reflection

What We Can Learn from Child Abuse Prevention Month

Laura Krausa

April is a sacred month to me. It is a time when I, like many of us, wait with great anticipation, ready to see the signs of a natural world on the verge of blossoming. And it is also time to reflect on the privilege many of us enjoy in simply being aware and present to this renewal and the promise of rebirth that spring ushers in.

This awareness is indeed a privilege. Because it is a gift that can only be appreciated if one has the time, space and safety to realize its glory. Sadly, for those experiencing violence and exploitation, access to this free, God-given gift can be unobtainable—certainly unenjoyable in the face of the fear and suffering associated with violence.

April is also Child Abuse Prevention Month. It is a month to remember that those most vulnerable among us—our children—are far too often prey to abuse and neglect that has dire consequences in their lives, both in the short- and long-term. What so many of us take for granted in the daily joys of life are stripped from those who have no ability to choose what their life will actually be. Persons victimized by human trafficking are no different. Those who experience this type of violence are robbed of their autonomy, leaving them prey to the trafficker and to a reality that does not afford choices, much less access to life’s simple pleasures.

All too often, those who are being victimized by traffickers are children. In the US, the age of most victims of sex trafficking are between 12-15 years old. Globally, those victimized by labor trafficking are typically between 5-17 years old. The ILO estimates that 250M children globally are being trafficked in one form or another. The numbers are astounding, disheartening and discouraging.

But we are a people of hope and we are called to remain so! Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to start where we can. We will not solve any crisis of violence in the next day, year or decade…but we can start. That “starting” is always based in understanding; and understanding forces us to explore root causes. Children, for example, are obviously more vulnerable to trafficking and violence than adults simply because they are children. They have less (or no) power and they have less reasoning and ability to judge because their brains are still developing.

But brain development and rank alone do not necessarily prime a child to be victimized by violence. Traumatic events in childhood have everything to do with a child’s resilience and ability to avoid risk. Children who experience violence have physical, mental and emotional health consequences across their lifespan.

According to the World Health Organization, injuries, disabilities, chronic conditions, cognitive impairment, PTSD, anxiety, depression, and diseases are among the health issues that plague a child victimized by abuse and neglect, often throughout their lifetime. As a result, problems with substance abuse, risky behaviors, and violence perpetration and/or victimization can be common—all of which can leave a child vulnerable to situations of exploitation.

Children experiencing abuse and neglect can lack critical social-emotional skills that many of us take for granted. It is not uncommon for such children to perceive their situation as “normal,” or to see and experience dysfunctional and/or violent relationships as the “standard.” This cycle of ongoing abuse and neglect can leave children without appropriate communication skills and it can certainly rob them of an ability to recognize healthy relationships. Self-esteem, learning opportunities, social supports, positive communications – these can all be severely damaged in this child that experiences abuse.

It is no wonder at all why children who have experienced abuse and neglect are such easy prey to traffickers. For those who become exploited sexually, traffickers will falsely, tragically, and shamefully lure them with the promises of  love and security. And for the child that has not experienced  either, there simply is no defense mechanism, no protective warning signs. Similarly, children can be lured through group involvement—seemingly finding a place of belonging that soon unmasks itself for opportunities of exploitation, abuse and violence.

So, in the vein of the pursuit of active hope, what are some things we can do to build strong resilience within children?

What can our institutions do?

  • Implement school-based or after school programs around social-emotional learning, positive relationships, self-esteem, life skills, and/or bystander training and peer mentoring.
  • Partner with and support NGOs with youth-facing programs that deliver curriculums such as those mentioned above.
  • Partner with NGOs on delivering positive parenting support services, including education, mentoring and resources that mitigate stress.
  • Provide funding for public awareness campaigns to prevent child abuse and neglect.
  • Encourage organizations to have dedicated internal resources for their employees that provide mental health care and support for positive parenting.
  • Advocate or lobby for public policies at the local, state, and national level that seek to mitigate and prevent child abuse and neglect, as well as human trafficking.

What can we do as individuals?

  • Educate ourselves about child abuse and neglect, understanding its prevalence and impact in our own communities and identifying root causes.
  • Join coalitions, NGOs or organizations that are working to address child abuse prevention and neglect.
  • Engage in an existing child abuse and neglect prevention campaign with a national or local organization.
  • Volunteer to be a youth mentor.
  • Volunteer to be a parent mentor.
  • Volunteer at a local agency that supports survivors.
  • Become educated in bystander training (learning how to safely intervene in a situation moving  toward a violent outcome).
  • Start a community movement for child abuse and neglect prevention.
  • Advocate for public policies at the local, state and national level that seek to mitigate and prevent child abuse and neglect, as well as human trafficking.

These are only a few suggestions, but there are countless ways in which we can influence the trajectories of violence as we seek to create the peaceful society we wish to see. No step is too small. No effort is meaningless. As we await the signs of spring – looking to watch a budding tree burst into life with thousands of leaves – we should remember that every effort we make is like one of those leaves. And together, we can create a canopy of care.

Laura Krausa