With April being National Child Abuse Prevention Month, Michelle Zambrano, the Will County Health Department’s Behavioral Health Manager of Child and Adolescent Programs, says child abuse is a much more complicated issue than ever before.
Zambrano says that when it comes to obvious signs of physical abuse, such as a child having severe bruises on their body, the definition of abuse has changed very little. But when it comes to emotional abuse, society’s eyes are now more open than in the past.
“Teachers, for example,” Zambrano stated, “are receiving more training from their school districts. The point is made to take initiative if a child goes, for example, from being very vivacious to being very quiet. With any kind of significant personality change, they know more than ever to think, ‘something may have happened.’”
Sonia Perez, Behavioral Health Manager for the Health Department’s Community Health Center, says it must be remembered that if a parent suspects something harmful is being done to their child, their primary care physicians and pediatricians are a logical first step, and referrals can then be made. In fact, pediatricians receive one month of formal Developmental and Behavioral training during their residencies.
It is also a fact that more things are reported today to organizations, such as the Health Department’s Behavioral Health Division. And Zambrano says, that’s fine. “It is our job to pass the reported incident on to the Department of Children and Family Services. It is there job to investigate and make a determination.”
And making a determination these days can indeed be very challenging. “Every year,” Zambrano pointed out, “you read more incidents in the newspaper about a child possibly being taken away from their parents. Maybe 50 percent would describe the situation as abusive, and 50 percent would not. This is where you need to look into where the person who reported the incident is coming from, as well as where the parents are coming from. Often, there are no hard, fast rules. The entire situation needs to be researched.”
Perhaps someone might report that a group of elementary school children are walking home from school alone, and feel they should not be because of all the dangers in the world today; further investigation might show that there is no neglect at home at all. Instead, the parents might have a plan for the children to, perhaps, “stay in a group and come straight home.” On the other hand, case workers might discover that the children do indeed have a problem at home, and live with neglect and lack of supervision.
Zambrano says some of the severe neglect we often hear about in homes with children “may lead people to say, ‘that didn’t happen in my day.’ Well, most likely it did happen. But now our eyes are more trained to look for it.”
Meanwhile, when it comes to training ourselves to watch for signs of potential abuse, especially as parents, perhaps no factor looms larger now that social media. “I remember a situation,” Zambrano recalled, “where a parent knew their six-year-old child was playing some kind of Xbox game in the next room. All of a sudden they heard a male, adult voice; clear as can be. Sure enough, this stranger had hooked up with the six-year-old in a virtual reality Xbox game. In situations like this, the parent needs to take action and ask, ‘What is this person doing communicating with my child,’ and report it immediately.”
Another example of how things have changed is the focus on child-on-child abuse. There is much more of a focus on school bullying these days. But Zambrano says sometimes it can be emotional abuse, especially with dating situations involving older kids.
“I remember once I asked a girl we were counseling why she was with her boyfriend. Her answer was basically ‘I don’t know’ or ‘because he asked me out.’ Sometimes the real reason is because the boy has threatened to harm himself or the girl if they break up. She might even be waiting for graduation so she’ll have the excuse of ‘we have to break up because I’m going away.’”
Perez says that parents “are more educated when it comes to recognizing these and other situations for what they really are. Perhaps in some cases, ignorance was a problem in the past, because we simply didn’t know what it was.”
And finally, Zambrano says the need for social agencies like the Will County Health Department to play a major role in the prevention of child abuse is more important than ever. “With today’s economy, there is so much stress. A parent might realize that their child needs counseling for something that happened, but they are afraid of taking time off and then losing their job. As a society we are so overworked, and we need a solid support system.
“I can’t speak for other agencies, but I’m glad that here at the Will County Health Department Behavioral Health Division we have counseling available until 6 PM Tuesdays and Thursday, as well as all day Saturday from 8 to 4.”
In the final analysis, Zambrano and Perez stated that everyone needs to be a team in looking out for any kind of possible child abuse. “I really do believe,” Zambrano says, “in the ‘It Takes a Village’ philosophy. We all need to be out there, watching each other’s backs.”
Perez agreed, saying that “we must be good to one-another. If we aren’t, who’s going to do it?”
If you suspect any kind of child abuse situation that should be investigated, you can contact the Will County Health Department Child and Adolescent Services Intake Number at 815-727-5911. You can also call 1-800-25 ABUSE, or 1-800-252-2873.