By Valerie D. Lockhart
SUN EXECUTIVE EDITOR
Thrown against a wall, Pete slid down into a fetal position onto the floor and covered his head to soften the impact from his mother’s blows. As his mother’s fists pounded on his back, the 8-year-old hoped the beating would stop when he cried out, “I’m sorry!”
"My earliest memory of my mom's temper is from when I was a toddler and she was throwing books down the stairs at my dad,” he recalled. “I was so young at the time that I thought it was a game. When my dad moved out, when I was 5 or 6, her aggression turned on me. Over the years, my mom kicked and beat me, threw me down the stairs and pushed me into a scalding hot bath. She once held my head under water and another time she shoved a full bar of soap in my mouth. There are too many incidents to recount.”
For James, one incident of abuse still troubles him years later.
“My worst memory of growing up happened when I was 9 years old. My dad was shouting really loud and calling my mom lots of really awful names. I saw him raise his hand to hit her, and I was worried about what he’d do so I got in the middle to protect her and push him away. He started striking both of us. We moved out of the house that day and went to stay with my Nana,” he remembered. “I started to pretend to be ill at school so I could go home and be with mom. I was afraid that my dad would turn up and felt scared about what he’d do.”
Like Pete and James, over 3 million children are victims of abuse each year. Childhelp, formerly known as Children’s Village USA, notes that a child abuse report is made every 10 seconds.
In 1979, Sara O’Meara and Yvonne Fedderson, the organization’s founders, were influential in getting President Jimmy Carter to designate April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Today, campaigns are launched across the country to raise awareness on signs of abuse and to report suspected cases.
A pinwheel is used in Michigan to symbolize children’s right to grow and to be able to speak out in a nurturing environment.
Children’s Trust Fund will plant a garden of pinwheels and will host the 9th annual State of Michigan’s Child Abuse Prevention Awareness Day rally on April 27 at 11 am on the steps of the state capitol in downtown Lansing. This year’s theme is “The Power of One.”
It only took one person, who recognized the signs of abuse, to rescue both Pete and James from their abusive situations.
Pete’s father noticed bruises on his son’s back during a weekend visit. He immediately reported the abuse to the authorities and went to court to gain custody of his son.
"It wasn't until I was around 12 that I started to realize that it wasn't normal and that other people's parents didn't hit them,” said Pete, who is now in his mid-twenties. “Over the next few years I got stronger and started to fight back so it would happen less regularly. I stayed at home until after my hearings were finished and then moved in with my dad. I know he feels guilty about leaving me with my mom, when I was younger.”
James’ relief came, when the school nurse called him into her office and counseled him.
“My school nurse referred me and my mother to a domestic violence program,” explained James, who is now in his twenties. “At the first session I got to meet other young people who had seen the same things and had similar feelings. I started to feel a bit more normal and realized for the first time that I wasn’t alone. My favorite session was where we made a volcano bottle bubble with vinegar and baking soda. I’d filled the volcano with words that described how I felt about my dad and lots of glitter so that when the volcano bottle burst it helped me to understand that bottling up things wasn’t a good idea. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has indicated the following as possible indicators of abuse and neglect:
•Physical Neglect - Physical Indicators: Unattended medical needs, lack of supervision, regular signs of hunger, inappropriate dress, poor hygiene, distended stomach, emaciated, significant weight change. •Physical Neglect - Behavioral Indicators: Regularly displays fatigue or listlessness, falls asleep in class, steals/hoards food, begs from classmates, reports that no caretaker is at home. •Physical Abuse - Physical Indicators: Unexplained bruises (in various stages of healing), welts, loop marks, adult/human bite marks, bald spots or missing clumps of hair, unexplained burns/scalds, unexplained fractures, skin lacerations/punctures or abrasions, swollen lips/chipped teeth, linear/parallel marks on cheeks and temple area, crescent-shaped bruising, puncture wounds, bruising behind the ears. •Physical Abuse - Behavioral Indicators: Self-destructive/self-mutilation, withdrawn and/or aggressive-behavior extremes, uncomfortable/skittish with physical contact, arrives at school late or stays late as if afraid to be at home, chronic runaway (adolescents), complains of soreness or moves uncomfortably, wears clothing inappropriate to weather, to cover body, lack of impulse control (e.g. inappropriate outbursts). •Sexual Abuse - Physical indicators: Pain or itching in genital area, bruises or bleeding in genital area, sexually transmitted disease, frequent urinary or yeast infections, extreme or sudden weight change, pregnancy under 12 years of age. •Sexual Abuse - Behavioral Indicators: Withdrawal, chronic depression, sexual behaviors or references that are unusual for the child's age, seductive or promiscuous behavior, poor self-esteem, self-devaluation, lack of confidence, suicide attempts (especially adolescents), hysteria, lack of emotional control.
“Children often cannot speak for themselves and when something as horrific as child abuse is happening, they cannot or do not know how to get help, said Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. “If you suspect a child is being abused, say something, report it, it just might save that child’s life. It is our job to protect children who do not have a voice.”
Observers and victims can also find relief by calling the National Child Abuse Hotline at (800) 4 A Child (422-4453).
"For a long time, I accepted what was going on at home as normal. But no child should have to live in fear or on edge in their own home – that's the place they should feel safest,” says Pete.