Childhood trauma: Let’s invest in prevention as well as treatment

Oprah childhood trauma
Image: jsonline.com

In the past decade, the world has discovered trauma. More and more “trauma-informed” models of care have been developed, and more and more institutions and government agencies have adopted these models, making a lot of money for their developers. Awareness of trauma and trauma-informed care took a big leap with its discovery by Oprah Winfrey, who highlighted in a 60 Minutes segment the adoption of the approach by her home town of Milwaukee.

Recognizing the impacts of trauma on human development and incorporating this knowledge into education, social services and other areas is important. But I wish we could devote as much attention to preventing trauma as we do to treating its effects.

Oprah’s story started with the case of Alisha Fox. She was removed from her mother at the age of one and placed in foster care. At the age of four, she was placed with her father, “a sometimes construction worker prone to heavy marijuana use and violent bouts of depression, “according to an article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel which inspired Oprah’s story.  For the next ten years, Alisha endured sexual abuse by her father. By the time she revealed the abuse and was removed from her father, she had a full-blown case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Whether Alisha’s trauma could  have been prevented is not clear. The child welfare system may have erred in placing her with a deeply troubled and drug-abusing father. Alisha told the Journal Sentinel that she covered up the abuse until age 14. It is common for abused children not to report their abuse. One can’t help but wonder if there were warning signs that were disregarded. There is more awareness now of the signs of child sexual abuse than there was when Alisha was a child. So we just don’t know if Alisha’s years of trauma could have been cut short or if other children in her situation can nowadays be protected better than she was.

But we do know that many other children are abused for years while numerous red flags are disregarded. Nobody called the authorities about the 13 Turpin children as they were beaten, starved and chained for years in two states, even though family and neighbors in two states noted numerous warning signs. Texas neighbors considered reporting but had seen Turpin with a gun and feared “repercussions.” California neighbors perceived a peculiar and private family but claimed not to draw the conclusion that abuse was occurring.

Other traumatized children are reported numerous times but the system never intervenes to help them. We we often hear about these children only after they die.  Evan Brewer was killed by his mother’s boyfriend after the Kansas child welfare agency had received eight reports that Evan was living in a home of chronic meth users and that the mother’s boyfriend was choking him until he blacked out. For every Evan Brewer who is finally killed, there must be many more Alisha Roths, who escape after years of suffering. Or like Congressional intern Tonisha Hora who wrote:

At 14 years old, my twin sister and I were removed from a kinship care placement and put in foster care after experiencing severe physical and verbal abuse for ten years…Child Protective Services often visited our home, sometimes multiple times a year, after they received reports from neighbors and teachers who we often asked for food to keep from being hungry or saw our bruises. We were scared children who wanted to run away every day in hopes of escaping. We were aware of how the system continued to fail us by never removing us from our home when they should have. To us, the signs were obvious, yet CPS workers always left us there. The abuse worsened after every CPS visit. That was the problem: they always left without us. Every time. For ten years.

There are things we can do to save the Alishas, Tonishas and Evans of this world before they end up with PTSD or die. We need universal mandatory reporting accompanied by a massive public education campaign about the signs of child abuse and the duty to report even a suspicion of maltreatment. We need enough funding to ensure that CPS workers are qualified and have time to make good decisions. And we need to ensure that the current bias by agencies around the country toward  preserving and reunifying families does not go too far and leave children to suffer in silence.

It is great that cities, states and the federal government are investing in trauma-informed care. Lets hope that with the help of citizen input, they soon decide to allocate equal resources to save traumatized children before they suffer as long as Alisha did.

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