Child Abuse and the Recession

By Fred Lee on 23 April 2009 7 comments
Photo: Deniz Ongar

Sleepless nights. Anxiety. Depression. Stress. Poor diet. It seems as if everyone is being affected by the current state of the economy in some shape or form, but if you’re a parent, there is another more unthinkable manifestation of the souring economy: child abuse.

Recent evidence seems to indicate that child abuse is on the rise, even though the national trend showed a decline from 2007 to 2008. Regional hospitals across the country, from Boston to Seattle, are reporting a disturbing rise in the number of children being admitted who display injuries consistent with abuse.

These include physically induced trauma to the head and limbs, to shaken baby syndrome. Though the abuse involves mostly physical injuries, doctors are also seeing a rise in non-physical cases of neglect whereby the parent either failed to attend to their  kids needs because they couldn’t afford it or because they had to work.

What’s troubling about the data is that with the economy still in flux, we could be seeing just the beginning. While numbers for the current year are not yet available, a recent national poll found that a majority of legal and law enforcement officials across the country anticipate that the trend will rise based on previous recessions, and many doctors seem to agree.

To rub salt in the proverbial wound, with the economy on the decline, the very organizations that have been established to prevent and address child abuse are being severely compromised by budget shortfalls, further aggravating the situation.

This, of course, highlights the need for parents to be particularly more vigilant to keep tabs on their emotional outbursts, because as every parent knows, they will happen; we’ve all been there. Irrespective of how much we love our children, they simply challenge us in ways we never imagined. When things get particularly difficult, it can add up to a perfect storm of emotions that might cause us to act out our frustrations.

So here are a few things to keep in mind to help deal with the difficult times and avoid a moment of anger that might possibly lead to something worse.

1. Talk about your frustrations. Sometimes just the act of being heard can go a long way to easing the tension, so find an acquaintance or professional who can sit and listen.

2. Let others help you. Even though I know certain parents can pull it off, it’s hard to fathom one parent doing it alone, so let others help. When you become a parent, a lot of people come out of the woodworks who want to help out, so if you know and trust them, take advantage of their offers.

3. Walk away. When things get particularly difficult and you begin to feel your blood boiling, just take a brief moment and walk away. Step outside or go into another room and take a breather. The physical separation will do you a world of good.

4. Get enough sleep.
One of the biggest challenges of parenthood is functioning while exhausted, and as everyone knows, lack of sleep can make our lives miserable. So get enough of it, and sneak in a nap when you can.

5. Make time for yourself.
Exercise, read, talk on the phone, whatever it takes. When you feel you’ve attended to some of your needs, the level of compromise and sacrifice that parenthood requires can seem a little less painful.

6. Get organized and plan ahead. At least for me, nothing is more frustrating that the time and energy I lose because I can’t be more organized, and efficiency can often lead to peace of mind.

7. Turn on some music and shake your booty. It doesn’t really matter what you listen to, as long you and the kids like it and want to move to its rhythms.

8. Move things outside.
Besides the invigorating feeling of being in the fresh air, kids can often entertain themselves once they’re in the great outdoors.

9. Create a support network. Nobody can relate to your pain and suffering more than other parents, and nobody would love to talk about it more. So take advantage of your mutual experiences.

10. Watch a video. While I’m not an advocate of TV, when things get really bad, the tube has an amazing way of sucking young minds into its enticing grasp, buying you some much needed time.

Finally, keep in mind that things are never as bad as they seem. We’ve weathered storms before and we’ll get through this one. Whatever you do, don’t take your frustrations out on your family, and if need be, seek out professional help.

The impetus lies on us to know the right things to do. The difficult times will happen, no question about, and how we respond could be the difference between acting appropriately or doing something we’ll regret for the rest of our lives. The importance of this cannot be overstated.

So do the right thing. And as always, we’d love to hear your stories or suggestions of regarding this subject.

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Guest's picture

As an attorney who handles these kinds of cases once the social service agencies get involved (representing both children and parents), I think it fair to warn well intentioned people that they may be setting off the equivalent of a nuclear bomb when they tip off so-called "service agencies" they think a child is being abused.

I'm not saying not to call if you think a child is being severely abused (witness severe beatings, see constant suspicious bruises on areas of the body (such as the back) which aren't prone to childhood clumsiness, etc.), but to be careful about what you're unleashing upon an already-frail barely-functioning family. So-called "Social Services" departments usually have NO social services attached to them, only destruction. 99 times out of 100, either the agency destroys a family that only needed a little help to do better, permanently traumatizing the children and often destroying their lives, yanks a child that SHOULD be yanked but then hands the child back to a psycho-parent who should NOT get back custody, or the family retreats from potential support networks who could help them out of fear of well-intentioned busybodies 'sicing social service agencies on them and destroying their family.

This is not paranoid rantings ... out of HUNDREDS of court cases I have handled, I can only name ONE case where calling in the agencies improved a child's life, TWO cases where kids were handed back that should not have been, and over 250 cases where DSS just made lots of threats, shuffled the kids around from foster home to foster home (destroying their ability to form bonds with people), then handed them back to parents who either were not helped (nothing changed) or who were helped by people other than social service agency.

If you suspect a parent is functioning below societal standards or beginning to lose it, don't yell at them, give them "the talk" (you know, the "we're concerned ... do we need to call DSS" talk) or threaten to call the police or DSS. If you do this, either they will disappear and not be helped or you will unleash a series of events that will be the opposite of the good intent you have in mind.

If you think the problem is symptomatic of stress and benign neglect and not because the parent is potentially a psychopathic baby-killer (if the latter, PLEASE call the police right away), be sympathetic about how hard it is to be a parent today and offer support and advice (to the best of your ability given the situation). For example, if a relative or neighbor is going through a tough time, offer to take one of their kids off their hands a couple of hours a week to teach them a new skill you enjoy teaching (piano, baseball, nature walks, etc.). Mom/dad get a break, the kid gets a new auntie or uncle, you get the joy of mentorship. Ask another relative or neighbor if they, too, would be willing to do this.

Don't force your yuppie-upper-middle-class-of-course-all-kids-should-have-private-school-and-dance-lessons-and-parents-should-never-ever-raise-their-voices sensibilities upon the parent. I doubt entitlement-issues are a problem with Wise Bread readers, but you'd be amazed at how many people have really unrealistic ideas about what constitutes "abuse" for a child (wearing hand me downs, not having snack food such as chips and lunchables in the house, etc.) DSS will manufacture confirmations of abuse when it doesn't exist after the 3rd or 4th bogus child abuse allegation by a vindictive person (twice I had cases where the only evidence of abuse were jealous wannabe-girlfriends repeated hotline calls trying to break up a relationship which were never substantiated, but the social workers decided to call it child abuse reasoning "if someone calls us, it MUST be abuse.")

If you want to help, invite the parent over for coffee and listen while they tell you their story. Most people are reluctant to discuss their problems, but if you provide a sympathetic ear, most eventually will. Even if they say nothing, just the fact of having a "normal" friend who listens to them will reduce their stress levels, which will translate into more patience with their children. If you know of resources that can help them stretch their meager resources further, educate them AND encourage them that there is no shame in accepting help when it is needed. If you have ever yourself or know of a respected friend who had once use these services, say so. In my area there are food pantries, free REAL parent education classes NOT offered by DSS (in other words, not simply the "are you beating your kids" type) offered by the "super mommy" groups, educational job training, etc. A lot of otherwise good parents start to lose it because they are ashamed to ask for help and the stress gets unloaded onto their kids.

The Mormon Church in our area has begun to offer excellent free "life skills" classes once a month ranging from budgeting to self-car-maintenance once per month to ANYONE, not just Mormons (highly recommended). If an asteroid were to hit the earth tomorrow, most disaster planners believe that 80% of the people who survive will be Mormons because they are always so well prepared.

If you are a typical Wise Bread tightwad, tell them your own tips for squeezing a penny until it cries and offer to help them learn how you do it. I have a dog-eared ratty old copy of the "Complete Tightwad Gazette" I hand to clients to skim through if lack of resources is the root of most of their problems and, believe me, it HELPS them. Don't scorn them if they are foolish with their money ... many weren't so lucky as to have positive frugal role models. Teach them "to fish" and become their frugal hero.

If the stressed parent is someone transient you see at a supermarket beginning to lose it, be kind. Smile at the parent (not criticize), say something sympathetic such as "I remember when my daughter would tantrum like that at the store" and then go on to offer some solution such as "I used to keep a little container of raisins in my purse and give it to them at the checkout line" or "I used to only be able to shop at 9:00 a.m. because any time after that my little guy needed his nap and would sprout horns." Smile at the child and say something nice such as "hey little guy, you look tired/hungry/sad/angry." The child will usually eye you suspiciously and begin to hic-cough but wail less insistently. In one fail swoop, you have offered the parent a mini-therapeutic session of empathy, redirected the child, and given them a tool to avoid the situation in the future. In other words, you will have just done a better job than most social service agencies, without unleashing destructive forces to destroy the family.

If after reading this you determine the parent has deteriorated to the psycho-parent stage and a call to the authorities is in order, keep your mouth shut about who made the call and be sure to protect your identity. The degree of parent who -NEEDS- social services intervention to help the kids is also the type of parent who will come after you with a crowbar in a dark parking lot some night. Every creature on the planet will kill when it's young are threatened. Only humans are nieve enough to think this instinct has been socialized out of a parent who is having their kid taken away by DSS. If you -don't- fear the parent like this, rethink calling and -do- think about how you can help hook the parent up with needed services and a support network to solve the problem. The goal should be to help the family, not punish or destroy it.

Guest's picture


This is probably what I feel one of the worse parts... it's not the kids' fault !


Guest's picture

While it's important to reduce child abuse, this article complete misunderstands abusive behavior. Abuse is not about anger. It's not about "losing control". In fact, abuse is all about control. It's possible abuse my increase during financial upheaval but it's a result of the abuser feeling a loss of control, not of them feeling scared or anxious. Studies have shown that even when an abusive person claims to be completely out of control that they still do things to protect themselves like only hitting a person where it won't show when their clothed, stopping short of seriously hurting someone, or damaging other peoples' property but not their own.

If a parent is stressed out and snaps at their kids but recognized that their behavior was inappropriate, that's an anger management issue. If a parent beats their child for the same thing, that's an abuse issue. They are NOT the same thing and the treatment for them is not the same. Abusive behavior is not a mental illness. It's a social perception that the abuser has the right to abuse their spouse or child.

Guest's picture

To the person who pointed out the difference between inappropriate behavior and abuse, most parents who lash out at their kids because of stress are not the same as what we label "batterers" who abuse their spouse and kids. I work with both populations of clients and know the difference. Sometimes parents -are- the same (i.e., entitlement to abuse) and in that case of course the state needs to intervene (and you'd better start avoiding dark alleys if the parent suspects it was YOU who made the call), but usually the parents are not. Batterers are very controlling, whereas a stressed parent who lashes out at their kids loathes themselves afterwards (guilt adding to their stress, which then makes future lashing out more likely).

I'm not condoning either behavior, only pointing out that the dynamics and the treatment are usually quite different (something most "authorities" don't seem to "get"). When was the last time you heard of a battered women tantruming and screaming in the checkout line of the supermarket or repeatedly doing the same naughty thing over and over and over again to get attention before getting clocked by the batterer? Most "abusive" parents -want- to be good parents, but they are under enormous stress (financial, divorce, children with learning disabilities compounding the problem, drug or alcohol addiction, inadequate support network, the other spouse -IS- a batterer as described in the last post) or do not have the education to understand how to encourage their children to behave. I don't have a lot of tolerance for the ups and downs of drug/alcohol addiction (pass the kid along to stable relatives, send the parent to detox, then talk about it), but most of the other problems are best addressed via education and compassion, not calling DSS.

Trust me ... after visiting child clients in a few of those foster homes I had to pull the car over and cry. A few whacks from mommy or not, the foster home was far worse, especially if the kids are older than age 6 (most older kids get warehoused and shuffled around like garbage, and the foster parents get no support whatsoever from the social service agencies). Lawyers for the kids and parents learn to team up to get the parents services WITHOUT the help of DSS, and often a DSS case worker will surreptitiously sneak behind the back of their supervisors to help the families get services because the DSS power structure is so dysfunctional (unfortunately, the good social workers frequently burn out after a year and quit, leaving only the deadwood or those social workers who learn to do their work behind the scenes without involving the power structure).

My point is it's not a black and white issue. If you are the person trying to help a family, be careful who you notify there is a problem because you could be unleashing an atom bomb. If you are the parent under stress because the economy stinks ... be careful about your stress level. Call your best friend and gripe when you feel yourself losing control. My favorite prayer ... "please lord grant me patience, kindness, and the self-control to keep my hands to myself..." Please swallow your pride and seek help to get through this stinky economy, and don't be ashamed to ask people to help you watch your kids so you can get a sanity break once in a while. Your kids don't need to know you had to apply for food stamps or their doctor is being paid by the state insurance agent, they just need YOU.

Fred Lee's picture

Wow, I don't know where to begin. Sam, thanks for your words and advice.

To Guest, you make some valid and interesting points. I think the thrust of the article was geared more towards the individual experiencing the stress and thus, setting themselves up to harm their child, rather than recognizing the signs in other people. I agree that intervention can do harm to a family for what might be an isolated incident, but also think that physical harm to a child still constitutes abuse, even if it's a one time deal, but should not be grounds for losing your children. On the other hand, every parent has been there, and we should try to keep our wits about us rather than do something we might regret, and as you pointed out, with the system as it is, run the risk of something horrible happening to our families.

SJ, it all makes me sad, as well, but these things happen because we are not perfect creatures.

To Wiste, I think it becomes an issue of semantics. What you choose to call something is up to the individual, but when you physically harm a child by breaking a bone or striking them, even if it's just once, for whatever reason (i.e., anger management, control, issues of power), I'd still interpret that as abuse. People may define it differently, but when someone is capable of beating their children, again, even if it's just once, it can be an indicator of future behavior. I know parenting is hard, I know every parent at some point wants to lose it, but how we react is what makes us adults and, for that matter, human beings.

And Guest, I agree that a child needs their parents, and an act of aggression does not justify losing one's family. My point was only to remind parents to be aware that these moments will arise, no doubt, and we should be aware of them so as not to act improperly. As far as recognizing it in other people and reporting it to the proper agencies, that's a discussion for another time.

Thanks again for all your comments, they were well thought out and much appreciated. And have a nice day.

Guest's picture

This is eye opening . . .

My feeling is parents abuse kids in other ways too-- like not saying "No" to them enough-- that is a real diservice to the child and other families . . .

Guest's picture

You write awsome article, bookmarked