Breaking the abuse pattern

Some time ago, while reading the Sunday "New York Times," I came across a familiar name, one that triggered memories from the distant past. The year was 1983, and I had recently opened a storefront-learning center on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn. It was a vivid neighborhood alive with children's voices in a myriad of languages. My little business was thriving, and one of the most exciting parts was having time to sit down with parents and discuss plans for their children.

One of my students was 13, an age at which, in New York, children prepare to go to high school. Many take very competitive tests or audition for special schools. Thus, I was not at all surprised when a parent came into the learning center and said nervously, "I think that you may be able to help my sister; something terrible has happened. "I did not realize what she was talking about until she said the little boy's name: David Rothenberg. His picture was all over the neighborhood, and people were going door to door in an effort to raise money to help pay for the medical care necessary after a horrible tragedy. Perhaps some of you remember the case. "On March 4, 1983, Charles Rothenberg deliberately set fire to the bed where his 6-year-old son, David, lay sleeping.

David did not die; his burns covered 90 percent of his body and left him severely disfigured." (Associated Press, June 15, 2002). The woman who had stopped by, his aunt, hoped when David was released from the hospital, I could work with him until he was able to go back to school. I did meet with his mother several times, and soon thereafter she moved to California where there were better resources at a renowned burn trauma unit.

Most victims do not have the obvious scars of a David Rothenberg. However, who is to measure the sting and the lifelong burdens they carry? Although the topic of child abuse and neglect is depressing , it is very important to face the statistics and know help is available for victim and perpetrator. Times of economic duress and uncertainty often result in an increase of crimes against innocent children. Frustrated adults, feeling they have no place to turn, will strike out at those closest to them, those who are unable to retaliate. The United States has a terrible record of crimes against children. One needs only turn on the television or pick up the newspaper to read how the most sacrosanct of institutions, the Catholic Church, has covered up sexual abuse of children for decades.

The statistics on physical and verbal child abuse are alarming. It is estimated hundreds of thousands of children are physically abused each year by a parent or close relative. Approximately three children die each day from abuse and neglect. More children under the age of 4 die of abuse than do in accidents. For those who do survive, the emotional trauma remains long after the external bruises have healed. For many children who have been abused, the results do not show up until adolescence or later, when they begin to abuse their own children and the dreadful cycle continues.

There are signs that can be identified in children who are victims of abuse. Children who have been abused may display a poor self image; sexual acting out; inability to trust others; aggressive-disruptive behavior; anger; self-destructive/suicidal thoughts; passive or withdrawn behavior; school failure; and/or drug and alcohol abuse. This list is not exhaustive and is meant to illustrate danger signs that should be observed and brought to the attention of appropriate authorities. Parents also should stand on guard and be cognizant and vigilant about with whom and where their child spends time.

As a nation, we must band together and stand up for children, our most valuable resource and hope for the future. Why is child abuse such a problem in the United States? Experts believe many parents lack knowledge of child development and have unrealistic expectations coupled with harsh discipline methods. One suggestion is parenting education be a mandated part of the high school curriculum. People are more malleable at this age and more likely to change their attitudes. Early identification and treatment are very important to minimize the consequences of abuse. School personnel who have been trained and are required to report any suspected cases of child abuse bring 59 percent of all children who are known to have been abused to the attention of authorities.

The schools themselves are not immune from harboring child abusers and avoiding, rather than confronting, the perpetrator. According to a recent (June 18, 2002) article in the New York Times, "When teachers are accused of sexual abuse, educators and law enforcement authorities say, districts often rid themselves of the problem by agreeing to keep quiet if the teacher moves on, sometimes even offering them a financial settlement. The practice, called passing the trash, avoids the difficulties of criminal prosecution or protracted disciplinary proceedings."Ordinary citizens can help children by providing financial support to credible organizations that fight child abuse and advocate for children. They also may reach out to families by giving of themselves.

Witness the story of Brittany. About the same time as the young life of David Rothenberg was changed forever, another vulnerable child came into my life. A tiny scrap of a child, 5 years old, she had witnessed the crime of crimes when her father, in an angry rage, murdered her mother. Although she and her younger sister had family that was willing to step in, it took two years in foster care to clear up the paperwork that was necessary for the move. The girl was brittle and tough on the outside and yet seemed touched by an angel. She utterly captivated everyone that she met. Soon a group of us started to support the family by spending time with the girls, offering free tutoring and supplementary services. We worked closely with the school helping the children keep up with their class work.

Years passed, some of us moved on, and yet we kept in touch with the family. Two years ago, this same girl, now all grown up, graduated from high school and was followed by her sister one year later. Now starting her third year at college, she has a part-time job as my grandson's babysitter. This story could have had a far different outcome if a community of support had not been available. Crimes against children must be stopped. It has been proven with proper treatment by child and adolescent psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers, families can learn new ways of communicating with one another. Children who have been abused can gain self-confidence and the ability to love. The cycle can be broken for children who are victims of neglect, sexual, and emotional child abuse.

Resources are available so please do not hesitate to bring perpetrators to the attention of authorities for, by doing so, you may well save a life. In New Jersey, the Office of Child Abuse Control can be reached at (800) 792-8610. In Pennsylvania, the Department of Public Welfare, Office of Children, Youth and Families, at (800) 7320313, handles reports of suspected child abuse and neglect.