Identifying Child Abuse And Its Lifelong Impact

April 1, 2011

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A recent headline was brought to my attention regarding the trial of Travis Mullis. The crime he is convicted of is a horrendous case of child abuse, where he stomped on his son Alijah's head to quiet him. The shocking incongruity of that statement is the nature of my work in social work, unfortunately. The other thing that really caught my attention in this truly horrific example of child abuse is what happened after the conviction in the punishment phase in the father's trial for capital murder.

According to testimony, Mr. Mullis had quite a difficult childhood. Leaving aside the issue of whether this mitigates his responsibility for his actions, it raises an interesting point being examined in the literature of child abuse. It is becoming increasingly apparent that child abuse and neglect have multiple phases of impact that continue throughout the life of the abused child.

Evidence is mounting that in addition to psychological harm that occurs as a result of trauma and negative social learning, physiological changes occur in children who are abused. These changes are linked to biological changes that may make the individual more prone, biologically, to mental illness, violence, obesity, inability to form quality relationships or effectively handle stress, among other things. The resulting health consequences include heart disease, some cancers and child abuse to their children.

Child abuse changes the way in which the brain and mind work, and is a mechanism through which these health and social problems get handed down generation to generation.

The solution is prevention. Those of us working in child abuse evaluation, prevention and education invite all of you to start to take action regarding this problem. April is Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month.

There are things that the average person can do to help children now:

  • Offer to help struggling parents by providing respite so that they can have time to decompress.
  • Be supportive of these parents by offering encouraging words.
  • Become conversant with normal child development — expecting 18 month olds to be potty trained is a losing proposition.
  • Model appropriate parenting techniques, which are developmentally appropriate for a given child.
  • Encourage parents to speak to pediatricians, nurses, social workers and other professions about their concerns. There is always help available.

At Texas Children's we are committed to the health and safety of all children. We urge everyone who may suspect that a child they know is being harmed or abused to call CPS. You can make the call in good faith and remain anonymous. Call CPS at (800) 252-5400 or report online at www.txabusehotline.org.

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