Surry County is observing Child Abuse Prevention month throughout April. As part of the outreach effort the Surry County Office of Substance Abuse Recovery is looking at the correlation between child abuse and substance use disorder.
The agency gets involved in education campaigns on topics that fall outside the box of simply substance abuse or recovery issues. The county’s outreach director Charlotte Reeves explained, “Child abuse can be caused by, and therefore cause, substance use disorder. This is part of the cycle we are trying to interrupt.”
“We are trying to get people to start making the connection about patterns and that child abuse can have devastating lasting effects on your adult life,” she said.
A big part of the messaging deals with the fact that child abuse may not take the form that people expect. A claim of child abuse may conjure up the very worst examples of neglect. In a community still reeling from an act of filicide and murder charges against two parents, issues of medical or physical neglect may be among those that come to mind first.
Denying medical care, mental health treatment, or failing to address a child’s basic needs such as hygiene, clothing, nutrition, and shelter elements would be considered abuse. Instances of child abandonment fall under physical neglect for if a caregiver abdicates their role without notice, every aspect of the child’s life will be thrown into upheaval.
Educational neglect may not come to mind and includes instances where a caregiver does not enroll a child in school, allowing absences or truancy, or ignores special needs of exceptional children.
An inadequate level of supervision is a form of neglect when a child is left essentially to fend for themselves. There may be debate as one person’s latch-key kid is another’s mature 8-year-old who does not need supervision, but child health experts warn against leaving kids home alone with no or inadequate supervision for long periods of time as a simple matter of safety.
Health professionals and nonprofits are working to help educate young parents on what the future holds for them. Reeves said that sadly some child neglect is unintentional and comes as the byproduct of people, often young people, who are simply outmatched by the overwhelming flood of responsibility that comes with being a new parent.
At a young age they may not understand the basics of child development, “They may not recognize how often their infant needs to be fed or changed, or know that a 5-year-old shouldn’t be left alone,” she said.
Local groups like The Parenting Path are doing their part to try to intervene where they can to break these cycles and they offer support to expecting parents of any age. With the Welcome Baby program, they offer support to parents so they will know they are not alone.
Any of these forms of abuse constitute an adverse childhood experience which have been documented in studies to contribute to many chronic health issues. Since last year the county has been participating in Strengthening Systems for North Carolina Children with the CDC, the NC Department of Health and Human Services, and UNC Chapel Hill to look at ACEs and ways the community can work to mitigate them.
Surry County was selected to be part of the pilot for the state and created a work group of stakeholders from across the county. Leaders in areas of mental health, substance abuse, public health, childhood development, law enforcement, and education came together to further their understanding of how community systems and structures can impact adverse childhood experienced and therefore the trajectory of lives.
It is not an all-encompassing list, but some such experiences include being in a home where they are the recipient of or the witness to physical, sexual, emotional abuse. Having a loved one incarcerated or dealing with substance use disorder may have a lasting impact as could divorce, death of a parent, bullying, food insecurity, and homelessness.
Adverse childhood experience’s have childhood in the name but the crux here is that these issues in childhood can have lasting impact on the adult that child is to become.
Sixty-one percent of adults report having experienced one of these adverse childhood experiences, and when you look at this list it is not hard to see why. A sixth of adults report having experience four or more adverse childhood experiences as a child.
With April focus on child abuse prevention, there are avenues to create tangible results within the community. Reducing adverse childhood experience will reduce the trauma on a young person, and as the Strengthening Systems for North Carolina Children group has been diagramming, there are reinforcing loops that can compound issues.
Reeves explained that if adverse childhood experiences lead to more trauma, then the proverbial snowball grows in size and speed from there as it goes downhill. More trauma leads to lesser quality of mental/emotional health, leading to decreased capacity for making good decisions, leading to more risky behavior where substance abuse often finds its way into the mix.
Increasing the risky behaviors increases instances of grief, loss, or regret which often leads to more trauma and behold the loop feeds back onto itself in a cycle of trauma and bad decision making.
Reducing instances of such experiences can have a long-lasting effect on the individual and generations to come. As the outreach coordinator, Reeves often tells young people that their bodies are still growing, and their minds are not yet done developing
“A growing body of research suggests that trauma like from childhood abuse, family violence, or food insecurity, among many other things, can be passed from one generation to the next. Trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes,” she said.
Each year more than 3 million children are reported abused or neglected and in North Carolina over 40% of those were under the age of five.
Reeves said to be on the lookout for blue pinwheel gardens throughout the month of April to raise awareness of child abuse prevention month and that on April 5 residents are encouraged to wear a blue ribbon to support the cause.
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