By ReShonda Tate,
A Houston mother beats her 4-month-old daughter because the baby’s father no longer wanted a relationship with her.
A 7-year-old boy was found dead in a washing machine where his adoptive parents reportedly stuffed him after he was beaten, suffocated and possibly drowned – all because the boy stole the father’s snacks.
Two teen siblings who made a daring escape from a Cypress home, revealed unimaginable abuse and horror at the hands of their own mother and her younger boyfriend. The 16-year-olds were “severely malnourished” and had lacerations on their wrists consistent with being restrained with handcuffs.
The tragic stories are endless. And child advocates say they’re a prime example of the growing problem of child abuse in the Houston area.
April is National Child Abuse Awareness month and community leaders say now, more than ever, it’s necessary to discuss ways to work together to prevent child abuse and neglect, especially in the Black community.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Black children were three times more likely to die from abuse or neglect than White children.
“Child abuse occurs within the Black community pretty much at about the same rate that Black people exist in the population, 13 percent. But it is in the death that results from that child abuse where the numbers are skewed and Black children are far overrepresented,” said psychologist Dr. Norman Fried. “Twenty-five percent of all child abuse cases in America are of Black children. And we know that one in every four Black children by the age of four will be abused, but one in every 10 White children will be abused at that same age range.”
According to Be A Resource, the number of children under child protective services in Houston continues to grow. For example, 16,000 children are involved with CPS-related cases. Of that number, more than 1,000 of them were removed from their homes in an emergency.
“These children and victims suffer severe and often life-altering consequences,” said Monica Sanders, regional director for Child Protection Investigations in Harris County. “As a result of their abuse, the abuse they suffer can have lasting consequences and impact them physically, psychologically, behaviorally and cognitively as well.”
Sanders said that abuse is manifested in different ways.
“Many times when we encounter runaways, we learn that they were running from abuse. Many times when we encounter someone that may be involved in prostitution, we soon learn that they were running from abuse. Often when we have people that are incarcerated, we learn that at some point they too were abused and we know that a great deal of the abuse that happens happens at the hands of people that were abused when they were children. So we must break those cycles, the impacts that they have, they could feel for years and we must do what we can to prevent it.”
Spare the rod
Children’s rights advocates have identified the abuse of children in Black communities as a byproduct of the normalization of abuse experienced by Black people as a whole. We often hear, “I was beat, and I’ve turned out fine.” Or “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” And the excuses behind physical punishment becomes muddled because of traditions in the Black community. But Fried says while mindsets have changed, it’s important to draw the distinction between child abuse and normal discipline.
“The different types of cultural norms that go into parenting, whether it’s Black versus White families or different religions or cultures, that’s not included in the statistics for child abuse,” Fried said. “What we talk about when we discuss child abuse are heinous crimes whereby a child’s sense of safety is threatened and it’s a life-threatening event. And so its any experience for a child that involves a sense of absence of safety where they are hurt either emotionally and/or physically. That doesn’t mean that certain cultures that allow spanking should be considered abusive. This is more a traumatic event that is placed somewhere in the brain of the child. And their worldview is changed forever.”
Child psychologist Alana Breed says it’s important to recognize that physical discipline, such as spanking, is not considered abuse as long as it is reasonable and causes no bodily injury to the child or youth.
“Many parents feel like their rights have been taken away from them because society as a whole has lumped child abuse together with any form of physical discipline. We have to be careful not to do that because it takes away from the very real issue of child abuse,” Breed said.
A broken system
For years, child-welfare agencies, family courts and various activists have looked to fix racial disparities in the system. A new study from the Journal of Pediatric Surgery shows Black families are more likely to be investigated than their White peers, investigations involving Black children are more likely to be substantiated and Black children are more likely to be removed from their families into the foster-care system.
In an effort to combat the structural racism of the “family policing system,” a movement to abolish the child-welfare system has sprung up. Using the “Defund the Police” movement as a model, its leaders demand the elimination of foster care and congregate care, of mandated reporting of maltreatment (by teachers and doctors, for instance) and of drug testing of infants and new mothers. They also want less police involvement in domestic violence (because it leads to more reporting of child maltreatment).
The study highlights the potential for bias in doctors’ and nurses’ decisions about which injuries should be reported to Child Protective Services, according to the researchers. Medical caregivers are mandated reporters, obligated to report to CPS any situations in which they think children may be victims of abuse. Because caregivers rarely admit to injuring their children, such reports rely in part on providers’ gut feelings, making them susceptible to unconscious, systemic bias.
Bias can harm both Black and White children, said senior study author Stephanie Chao, MD, assistant professor of surgery at Stanford Medicine.
“If you over-identify cases of suspected child abuse, you’re separating children unnecessarily from their families and creating stress that lasts a lifetime,” Chao said. “But child abuse is extremely deadly, and if you miss one event — maybe a well-to-do Caucasian child where you think ‘No way’ — you may send that child back unprotected to a very dangerous environment. The consequences are really sad and devastating on both sides.”
Distinguishing race and poverty
Racial disparities in reporting child abuse have been documented before, but prior studies have not controlled well for poverty, which is a risk factor for abuse. Some experts argue that disproportionate reporting of injured Black children as possible abuse victims reflects only that their families tend to have lower incomes, not that medical professionals are subject to bias.
“Even when we control for income — in this case, via insurance type — African American children are still significantly over-represented as suspected victims of child abuse,” said Chao. “In addition, they were reported with lower injury severity scores, meaning there was more suspicion for children with less-severe injuries in one particular racial group.”
In general, the researchers found medical professionals had a higher threshold for suspecting White families of abuse and a lower threshold for suspecting Black families. For example, White children in the suspected abuse group were more likely than Black children to have worse injuries, and they were more likely to have been admitted to the intensive care unit.
Recognize the forms of abuse
Physical abuse: Any physical injury resulting in substantial harm to the child, or the genuine threat of substantial harm from physical injury to the child.
Sexual abuse: Any sexual conduct harmful to a child’s mental, emotional or physical welfare, as well as failure to make a reasonable effort to prevent sexual conduct with a child.
Emotional abuse: A pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth.
Neglect: The failure to provide for a child’s basic needs to sustain the health and life of the child, excluding failure caused primarily by financial inability unless relief services have been offered and refused.
Medical Neglect: A type of maltreatment caused by failure of the caregiver to provide for the appropriate health care of the child although financially able to do so, or offered financial or other resources to do so.
Human Trafficking: The exploitation of a child for the purpose of commercial sex or through force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of forced labor.
By the Numbers
- 77 percent of abuse among Black children occurred in children 0 to 5 years of age
- 61 percent of Black children abused by biological parents
- 656,000 victims of child abuse/neglect nationwide
This article was originally published by the Defender Network.