October is Child Abuse Prevention Month

What will you do to stop child abuse?

“When you feel badly about reporting a parent, you are preventing an opportunity for the Children’s Aid Society to help and support this family. Children’s Aid is always seen as negative and they will take away your children. It’s just not true.”Pearl Rimer, BOOST

October is Child Abuse Prevention Month; a time to reflect and break the taboo of openly discussing and acting on child abuse and violence. It’s an uncomfortable topic, but Pearl Rimer, Manager of Research & Training at Boost Child Abuse Prevention & Intervention, wants you to start a conversation and understand your role in protecting children.

“What goes on behind closed doors stays behind closed doors” is a common refrain according to Pearl. “But we need to break this thinking. When it comes to children, it’s everybody’s business and the entire community is responsible for keeping children safe.”

According to Pearl, progress was made in the early 80’s when more sexual abuse programs were implemented through the school system; there was more openness and social acceptance to talk about this kind of abuse. But today, not all types of child abuse are getting equal attention and action. Emotional abuse is not taken seriously and is often minimized or ignored all together. “At least he or she doesn’t hit you” is a common belief says Pearl. “But what people don’t understand is that this thinking not only minimizes the emotional well-being of children, but it often ends up in physical violence. Research has proven this again and again. Emotional abuse can be a red flag to other kinds of abuse.”

The same is true for children exposed to family violence (for example, a child witnessing his/her mother being hit) or suffering from neglect (the most common type of abuse). Both can have very negative impacts on the child and are reportable according to the law.

A Public Health Agency of Canada report “Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect” (2010) revealed child abuse and neglect were much more common among families experiencing high levels of stress. Domestic violence (46%), lack of social support (39%), and mental health issues (27%) were the three most commonly cited stress factors among primary caregivers. Housing conditions, reliance on social assistance, and frequency of moves were important household risk factors. (Source: The Vanier Institute of the Family, May 2011.)

Now consider these risk factors in the context of a newcomer family, struggling with the stresses of settlement, including cultural differences, which can play an important part in understanding child abuse. Pearl gives the example of having a belief or value system that the caregiver has the right to physically punish a child. “The majority of people who physically abuse their children don’t intend to hurt them. They truly think they are doing the right thing and are helping their children, but they don’t understand the implications.”

There may also be unrealistic expectations of a child’s behaviour according to family values and culture. But are these expectations realistic with what we know about child development? As professional caregivers, we have the opportunity and obligation to share this information with parents. “But avoid being judgmental,” warns Pearl. “We can learn a lot from our newcomer clients. We need to give people the space to talk about this stuff.”

And for newcomers who may come from places in the world where there isn’t a child protection system or it’s quite different from the Canadian system, they may believe authorities are people not to be trusted. “We want everyone to feel comfortable asking questions. But unfortunately, many newcomers get the message ‘you better not do this or that or Children’s Aid will take your kids away’. We want everyone to have an understanding of how this system really works,” says Pearl.

So as caregivers helping the newcomer family to succeed, what can we do to prevent child abuse and violence in the family?

“Healthy relationships,” says Pearl. “This is the foundation. Building trusting relationships, respecting each other, understanding boundaries; these are all important for us to model to every member of the family.”

We also need to start talking about child abuse prevention and intervention. “There is a lot of family shame, especially with sexual abuse, that stops people from talking about it and reporting it,” says Pearl. “We need to get newcomer families and the caregivers who help them to come to a more comfortable place about protecting kids. We can do this by building this topic into our curricula, into our conversations with parents and caregivers, and in the information we provide.”

So commit to taking action during Child Abuse Prevention Month and the rest of the year, even if it’s just a small step to begin with. It’s not only our legal and moral obligation, but as Pearl sees it, “If kids don’t have a healthy trusting relationship with at least one adult in their life, who can they go to?”

Take action during Child Abuse Prevention Month:

  • Put up a poster about child abuse prevention/intervention.
  • Put up a newspaper article related to child abuse on a bulletin board, or better, bring it in and discuss with parents/colleagues; use the article to start a conversation.
  • As a caregiver, be more open to listening in a different way and be open to something new about this issue that may make you feel uncomfortable; for example, read an article why you shouldn’t spank your kids, even if you believe it’s okay to spank kids; just be open to reading it and give yourself space to think about this.
  • Don’t shy away from this issue; we can’t turn our back on it.
  • Seek help if you have been a victim of abuse or if you are in an unhealthy relationship.
  • Step back from the judgment; it stops us from helping one another.

Learn more:

Visit www.newcomerfamilies.ca for free in-person and online training, including Child Abuse: Prevention and Intervention.

Watch for BOOST’s new Public Service Announcement, scheduled to launch in October 2011. Visit www.boostforkids.org

BOOST provides programs and services to children, youth, their families, professionals and communities to prevent and respond to abuse and violence. BOOST can assist newcomer families. They have an interpreter service; they accept all family members, regardless of immigration status; and they have an understanding of the many layers facing a newcomer family. Visit: www.boostforkids.org for more information.

Pearl Rimer, Dip.C.S., M.E.S., is the Manager of Research & Training at Boost Child Abuse Prevention & Intervention. She designs and conducts award-winning training for community service providers, children and youth, as well as designing psycho-educational groups for adolescent girls. You can contact Pearl at rimer@boostforkids.org