Monday, April 30, 2012

April: National Child Abuse Prevention Month

I can’t let the month of April pass without posting something about child abuse and the need to help those poor innocents who can’t help themselves. So, before the national consciousness becomes lost in the ubiquitous hype of honoring moms and dads, many of whom don’t deserve such positive attention, I’m posting a reprint of an essay I wrote for my column in the Arizona City Independent/Edition and later reprinted in my essay collection, The World I Imagine: A creative manual for ending poverty and building peace. Here, then, is a reminder of our responsibility to the children in need of protection:


Each year our national consciousness is directed to the celebration of parents. Institutions ranging from local churches to retail stores tell us to "Remember Mom" and "Don’t Forget Dad."

No doubt many parents deserve respect for their sacrifices in raising children. But what of those children who are abused by their parents? What do victims owe to the people who torture them in so many ways?

Most people know Mothers Day is celebrated in May and Fathers Day in June. But did you know that April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month? I wasn’t aware of it, though I’m an adult survivor of abuse.

My relatives’ attempts to continue punishing me for my illness, after all the years I’d suffered their physical abuse and medical neglect, continued into my 50s. Though they’re responsible for the extent of my disability, I fought them as I’d always done, by trying to talk sensibly to people who’ll never accept me as a human being with basic civil rights. Until their attitude changes, I’ve had to accept that my first duty is to protect myself from their toxicity, which only exacerbates my medical condition. The choice is theirs.

One day I’ll share my story, but for now, I want to introduce some basic facts about abuse. Perhaps I can help someone who needs to understand that if it’s happening to them or to someone they love, they have a right to do what they must to make it stop.

Perhaps the biggest myth that prevents abuse victims from getting protection, especially from their own parents, is the claim that "parents give children life." Thus, all children are expected to respect their parents, even when parents so completely disrespect their own children.

My favorite response to this claim comes from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1923, 1951), in his poem "On Children":

"They come through you but not from you,

"And though they are with you yet they belong not to you."

Though Gibran never uses the word in this poem, his vivid imagery credits the source of life as God:

"You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

"The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far."

Thus, it is not parents who give children life but the Creator. Children are a gift from God, and parents must treat them with tender loving care. Abusing a child is a rejection of that precious gift, an act of disrespect toward the Great Giver of Life.

Though the 20th chapter of Exodus, in verse 5, connects "iniquity of the fathers" to idol worship, I often wonder if the warning that "visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me" (KJV) refers to the fact that the abuse of children--rejection of God’s most sacred Gift to humans--tends to run in families, since parents who abuse children are likely to have been abused themselves.

On the other hand, abused children don’t necessarily become abusers too. The behavior can be unlearned; the cycle can be broken. It is a matter of education and choice. But if we don’t talk about it, it cannot be eradicated, and victims will never find a way out of the cycle of abuse.

It’s important to note that no matter what form abuse takes, the goal is always the same: power. Abusers have an inordinate need to control someone who can’t fight back. Abuse, whether verbal, physical, sexual, or medical, is merely the tool that the abuser uses to exercise control over someone they consider weak, which is the only way abusers can feel powerful about themselves.

Abusers become angry when victims speak out, but it is the only way to protect their victims and stop the abuse. That’s why we must bring the issue into the light and teach children to stand up for themselves and speak out until they find someone to protect them. Children must understand that anyone can be an abuser: strangers, friends, and relatives--especially parents. Children must be taught that when they’re betrayed by the people they should be able to trust more than anyone else, parents lose the right to their loyalty and respect.

In the world I imagine, poverty ("the worst violence," according to Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi) will be a distant memory and war will be a mere footnote in the history books. In such a society, abusive parents will be exposed and children will be protected from harm. Then, and only then, can we build a truly peaceful society throughout the world.

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