Recently, I accompanied my daughter’s kindergarten class on a field trip to Botanica in Wichita. Eagerly, the classmates sat on the patio eating their sack lunches before trotting off to hear a presentation on what makes plants grow.
They stomped their feet to simulate rain, put their hands above their heads to “shine” sunlight and wiggled their fingers to make air circulate around the pretend sunflower. In response, the guide built the structure by placing its sections of PVC pipe together to simulate a stem. At the end, a smiling sunflower bloom crafted from felt donned the top to reward the children for all their hard work.
Later, as we wandered the grounds of the children’s garden, I found myself lost in the sunlight and fresh air. Happy giggles wafted over the maze of boxwoods indicating I was not the only one enjoying this magical space.
At age 6, the primary concerns for most of these children are the school lunch menu, recess and the number of teeth lost so far. My parents ate lunch at the school recently and laughed at how the children proudly pointed to the open gaps where baby teeth once stood. Then, one child remarked in amazement, “Are you going to eat all of that?” to my stepfather as he ate the enchilada surprise.
Now, consider this. Of those 20 children in my daughter’s class, on average, three to four children will experience at least three Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) before the age of 18.
Defined by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), ACEs are “stressful or traumatic events that occurred during childhood.” Generally, these include “verbal, physical or sexual abuse as well as family dysfunction.”
In 2015, KDHE measured eight specific types of ACEs for its Kansas Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) report: physical abuse, emotional abuse, violence between adults in the household, parental separation/divorce, mentally ill household member, incarcerated household member and substance abuse in the household.
In Harvey County, 17 to 19 percent of all survey participants reported experiencing at least three of these in childhood.
Most importantly, we should think of these early experiences as leaving a lifetime imprint on the child. The negative effects are often evident throughout that child’s adult life, sometimes waiting to emerge many years later.
And, they are proportionate. The more ACEs, the higher risk for health problems, mental illness and substance abuse (source: KDHE Trauma-Informed Approach).
Risk factors such as these impact every aspect of not only the person’s life, but the community as a whole. Think of it this way, a child protected today will be less likely to be addicted to meth later. The dots are easy to connect when we consider substance abuse as a self-medication to numb a history of trauma.
So, did you see little blue pinwheels around town?
The pinwheels are a universal symbol of child abuse prevention. According to Sandra Bradley, Executive Director of CASA, “Protecting our children is everyone in the community’s job.” CASA serves the Ninth Judicial District, which includes Harvey and McPherson counties.
To raise community awareness, both CASA and Heart to Heart have distributed pinwheels and promotional materials at businesses throughout town.
“Prevention month is about creating awareness of the importance of nurturing children and keeping them safe. Everyone has a role in that,” Bradley stated.
She shared the following tips from the Prevent Child Abuse America organization:
First, build positive relationships with the children in your life. Let them know you love them, believe in them and they can trust you.
While not all ACEs can be prevented, there is a connection between positive adult/child relationships and resiliency for the child. That means the connection today can help stave off the negative effects in adulthood.
Second, know the signs and symptoms of abuse/neglect:
Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance.
Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents’ attention.
Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen.
Lacks adult supervision.
Appears afraid or hesitant to go home after school.
Third, if you recognize these signs, report it to the Kansas Protection Report Center, 1-800-922-5330.
For more information, visit www.preventchildabuse.org.
Just last week, I encountered a Newton resident concerned about the safety and well-being of the children living next door. I wish I had these tips at hand when I listened to her concerns.
Sandra offered some final thoughts, “We have a broken system. However, many people out there care. They are trying to make a difference for our children, and are making the system better. We are growing and learning every day. So, while it is not the best, it is there to protect children. If you see a way to make the system better, do it!”
— Tina Payne is the director of Harvey County United Way.