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Toll of child emotional abuse little understood

Posted by Sandra On January - 30 - 2010

I don’t know what it’s like to be 10 years old and abducted by a supposedly loving mother. I don’t know what it’s like to be manipulated into telling lies about how your father sexually abused you and your younger brother, sometimes in ways that challenge reality.

And I don’t know what it’s like to need therapy at such a young age.

But there’s a St. Paul girl — a former classmate of my son’s whom I won’t identify here — who knows. Last week, she bravely took the witness stand and told a judge and jury that she lied about the sexual abuse because she did not want to disappoint or lose her mother’s love.

“She’s a tough cookie,” a relative of the girl told me this week.

Unfortunately, hers is not an isolated case. We know what physical and sexual abuse looks like. But the scars of emotional abuse and neglect, particularly at the handsof a parent, are often ignored and pretty much invisible to all but those closest to the child. And that’s what this child and countless others experience.

“Emotional abuse is very hard to substantiate and takes lots of forms,” said Connie Skillingstad, a former child-protection worker and executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota, a St. Paul-based child advocacy group.

“In the extreme, (emotional abuse or neglect) can seriously interfere with a child’s cognitive, emotional, psychological and social development,” Skillingstad said.

“The effects of emotional abuse may include insecurity, poor self-esteem,


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destructive behavior, withdrawal, poor development of basic skills, alcohol or drug abuse, suicide, difficulty forming or maintaining relationships, and unstable job histories.”From migraines to early death, researchers and public-health officials are assembling a growing body of credible evidence about the long-term, devastating effects of child abuse in all forms. A University of Toledo study published this month in a medical journal found that patients physically or emotionally abused as children have a higher prevalence of chronic migraines than people without such a history.

In fact, 38 percent of the 1,348 migraine patients who took part in the study reported being emotionally abused or neglected as children, the highest percentage among all other child-abuse types.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are about 12 years into perhaps the most ambitious and unprecedented childhood-abuse study of its kind. The study is tracking the link between adverse childhood experiences of 17,337 test subjects and health-related problems in later life. The experiences range from abuse to living in a dysfunctional household that includes substance abuse and incarcerated parents as well as divorce or separation.

The study so far has found that two-thirds of the study participants reported at least one such adverse experience and more than one in five reported three experiences or more. Nearly 11 percent reported emotional abuse.

Researchers so far have found that as the number of these forms of childhood stresses increase, so does the risk of alcohol abuse, depression, fetal death, heart disease, suicide attempts, domestic violence and a host of other health problems.

“The goal is to study and act on how adverse childhood experiences affect the things that society cares about — mental health, quality of life, longevity, substance abuse,” said Dr. Robert Anda, the study’s chief researcher and designer. “The list is long.”

Anda said society still has a perception of child abusers as alien, monstrous beings who do horrible things to children.

“In fact, it’s (largely homegrown) and an unfortunately common occurrence,” Anda said. Breaking the familial cycle of abuse as well as creating more effective programs or public policy addressing child abuse are other major goals of the ongoing study, he said.

Anda is scheduled to travel here next month to speak to Minnesota state legislators about the national survey results.

SUICIDAL AT AGE 4

As a longtime guardian ad litem, businessman Mike Tikkanen applauds the research. He has seen firsthand the emotional and physical scars of child-abuse victims.

He has handled cases in which family court judges have ordered “Ritalin, Zoloft, Prozac and other psychotropic medications of 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds who the courts have decided might kill themselves without the meds.”

“My first suicide attempt by a 4-year-old was a girl who was sexually abused and who watched her sister being abused,” said Tikkanen, founder of Kids At Risk Action Group, a nonprofit devoted to protecting and advocating for the rights of abused children.

Tikkanen said he believes we are doing too little to prevent child abuse or protecting children after it happens.

“The U.S. system, institutions and people that work in them are trained to ignore or minimize the absolute horrors that follow these children for the rest of their lives because childhood traumas are not considered important,” he said. “Only when children have been subjected to extended exposure to violence and deprivation are they placed in protective custody.”

Though plenty of folks in the child-protection system may take issue with that statement, the case of the St. Paul girl has a frustrating if unjust element to it.

First off, a family court judge who granted the father physical custody of the child and the younger brother ruled more than two years ago that the sexual abuse allegations were repeatedly investigated and found to be untrue or lacking in evidence. The judge also found that the child’s mother was impairing the daughter’s development.

Yet the sexual abuse allegations were introduced in the woman’s defense at her trial last week on charges she abducted the two children and hid from the law for four months. Officials located them at a shelter in Fargo, N.D.

Little if any testimony was presented about where these kids were taken or what they experienced during an international manhunt to find them. The children spent more than six weeks in group- and foster-home settings before North Dakota officials, satisfied the sex-abuse claims were unsubstantiated, reunited them with their father.

So it’s not surprising that the father and his wife believe they were the ones placed on trial and less so the mother who abducted them in violation of a court order.

JAIL TIME UNLIKELY

Though the mother was convicted of two felony counts of parental deprivation, a spokesman for the Ramsey County attorney’s office said it is unlikely the mother will face jail time.

Prosecutors reportedly told family members that the woman, who had no criminal history, would have to commit the same offense numerous times before jail or prison time is mandated.

The conviction also doesn’t bar the woman from asking a family court judge to grant her visitation rights. Family members I spoke with are not opposed to that as long as the visits are tightly restricted and supervised.

Why? There’s an acknowledgement that in spite of what these two kids went through, they still love their mother. That’s the bottom line, and that’s what makes these kinds of cases so sad and so damned frustrating.

Rubén Rosario can be reached at 651-228-5454 or rrosario@ pioneerpress.com.

ONLINE

To learn more about Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota, go to pcamn.org.

To learn more about the Kids At Risk Action Group, go to invisiblechildren.org.

To learn more about the adverse childhood experiences study, go to cdc.gov.










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