The Hallway of Healing

It’s hard to believe that it is April again, the time when those of us who live in the world of child abuse prevention, intervention, and treatment put out our rallying cries in a louder voice perhaps than at any other time of year. It is our soapbox time, our time to signal to our communities to wake up, to pay attention, to learn more, to become empowered with knowledge about our cause.

The statistics and stories remain daunting in our world. Those of us who are part of an integrated children’s advocacy center (CAC) continue to see our numbers rise. Last year, in our agency, we served more than 4,000 children and non-offending family members. Our clients are children who have been sexually abused, severely physically abused, severely neglected, and children who have witnessed a homicide. With more than 750 accredited CACs across the United States, we are collectively serving more than 315,000 abused children annually through a multi-disciplinary model to meet the unique needs of child victims of crime.

It would be easy to become mired in distress, to allow the heaviness of our work to shadow our spirits and burden our hearts. And yes, some days are like that because we often witness the worst of what humanity brings. But on most days, we are reminded of the honor it is to just stand with these children and guide them along their journey. On most days, we are reminded that hope and healing is there, just beyond the tears.

Graduations are a perfect example of this. When our young clients have moved through the forensic interview process and have completed their goals in therapy, we take time to celebrate. Whether it has been six months or two years since they first crossed our threshold to allow us to help them carry their burden, each graduation is special. Our staff teams and co-located partners from law enforcement, child protective services and district attorney’s office come out of their work zones into a long, brightly sunlit hallway. The child, his or her therapist, siblings and the child’s parent or guardian all stand at the beginning of the hallway, and the child walks down the hallway, which is lined on either side by the professionals who have served him or her.

We listen as the therapist praises the child for working hard in therapy, listen as the parent or guardian expresses appreciation for the support the family has received, and we clap as the child walks down that hallway, surrounded by us with high fives and cheers. It is a symbolic and heroic walk of a survivor’s journey. Sometimes clients say something too, but most often, we hear from them through their smiles and the sparkle in their eyes. These are children who now know at some level, “It wasn’t my fault. I am not damaged. I am not alone.”

During this important month, Child Abuse Awareness Month, we push our communities to stand up for children. We push them to learn more, to glimpse into the realities of our world so that they can become more aware, more vigilant, and more protective of all children in our midst. For those of us who are in this field, who do this work, let’s also take a moment to remember what a deep privilege it is to gently hold the sorrow of children in our hearts until they are strong enough to walk down that hallway on their own, surrounded by those who have borne witness to their journey.

We know that there are more children out there who never make it to our threshold, who never make it to walk down that hallway. Approximately 38% of child victims disclose the fact that they have been sexually abused. Of these, 40% may tell a friend, rather than an adult, which does not trigger the system needed to provide critical support. Children who do not disclose or who disclose to someone who cannot help them are around us and among us right now, quietly waiting for someone to help. So, please, take time during April to be observant, to watch for signs that a child’s world is shattered. They need you. They need us. And we need more children to make the heroic walk across a CAC’s threshold and down that hallway of healing.

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Keep moving forward…

By: Jana Parker, PR & Marketing Specialist at the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center

I’ve heard it said that women are our greatest resource. They are our mothers, our teachers, our protectors. But these roles are being threatened.  In today’s world, when the average age of entry into street prostitution is between 12 and 14 years old,  some even as young as 9 years old, (ECPAT USA – End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) we must wake up to this horrible reality happening to girls across the nation.

To first begin a discussion of human trafficking in America, we have to put aside previous notions or beliefs about this trade.  Many people when they hear the words “human trafficking” they picture girls being shipped from one country to another in small, cold, and dark containers and forced to be chained to a bed. Although this is a reality in some parts of the world, here in America it is happening to girls you would never suspect. So…who is she?

She is the straight-A student on the high school varsity tennis team, she is the vulnerable middle schoolgirl searching for her identity; she is the girl looking for love in all the wrong places.  The face of the trafficked victim can be any girl, our daughters, our nieces, our friends. The growing reality is that pimps and johns are getting smarter, learning better grooming and recruiting tactics to lure girls into their world. They are no longer forcing the girls to become addicted to hard drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin, but rather using prescription painkillers and alcohol in order to prolong the life of their precious commodity. In this lucrative business of trafficking, these girls can be bought and sold time and time again.

Although the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center doesn’t see child trafficking victims, we see the children who have been sexually, physically, and emotionally abused and therefore are vulnerable to run away from home and become involved with the wrong people who prey on these children’s weaknesses. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, one common characteristic or risk factor for prostituted girls is a history of childhood sexual abuse.  In 20 recent studies of adult women who were sexually exploited through prostitution, the percentage of those who had been abused as children ranged from 33 percent to 84 percent (Raphael, 2004). Furthermore, across the United States 36,402 boys and 47,472 girls younger than age 18 were picked up by law enforcement and identified as runaways. (Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reports (2006). Girls who run from their homes, group homes, foster homes, or treatment centers, are at great risk of being targeted by a pimp (or trafficker) and becoming exploited. Once on the street, homeless youth are at risk for being victimized because they lack the funds, interpersonal and job skills, and support systems necessary to survive on their own (Martinez, 2006).

In waking up to this reality that is occurring every day, we must encourage government and law enforcement professionals to eliminate the demand for these women to be purchased.  We cannot afford for these pimps and johns become any smarter. We must adhere the words that mean so much today, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Junior’s speech in Washington, D.C., “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

To all of those involved…don’t ever stop moving forward.

The Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center helps the most severely abused children in Dallas County. The average age is a 9-year-old girl. Through DCAC’s therapy and other services, young girls who have been sexually abused are able to learn, maybe for the very first time, that they are valued, worthy of real love, capable of achieving their dreams.  Your support of DCAC allows them to receive hope and healing and to move forward in the next chapter of their lives.

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What About the State of Children Living Outside the Womb?

Read the full op-ed at The Huffington Post 

Now that some time has passed since our Texas Legislature debated on abortion, now that the nerves are not quite so raw, I feel the need to say something. No matter what your position is on the highly complex and deeply personal subject of abortion, I just have to know: Why do we seem to care so much about fetuses but then not so much after the big birth event? Is there something about traveling through the birth canal that erases the value of a human life?

Let’s be real. America’s children outside the womb are in a dreadful state. I realize I may be somewhat cynical, as I see the worst of the worst in how children are treated in ourChildren’s Advocacy Center (CAC), a national best-practice model of coordinated care and service delivery for young victims of crime. We see children who have been molested, beaten, stabbed, locked away and malnourished, limbs broken — most at the hands of those who are supposed to love and care for them. Where is our outrage, our fervor, and our passion for these children?

So, let me remove my jaded self from the equation and provide some additional national context. In the 2012 Children’s Defense Fund’s Report on the State of America’s Children, Marian Wright Edelman states:

Millions of children are living hopeless, poverty and violence stricken lives in the war zones of our cities; in the educational deserts of our rural areas; in the moral deserts of our corrosive culture that saturates them with violent, materialistic, and individualistic messages; and in the leadership deserts of our political and economic life where greed and self interest trump the common good over and over. Homeless shelters, child hunger and child suffering have become normalized in the richest nation on earth.

More than 3 million referrals of child maltreatment are received by state and local agencies every year — that’s about six referrals every minute. Of the approximate 2,000 children with a cause of death listed as “homicide” each year in our country, about 80 percent of them are younger than four years old. Tragically, some children who die as a result of abuse have been physically abused over time. About 80 percent of these children are killed by a parent or parental figure. Our nation’s child victims of homicide die from head injuries or from internal bleeding due to abdominal trauma. Other children die from hot water immersion, smothering or drowning.

Read the full op-ed at The Huffington Post 

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These Wounds Must See Light

Read the full op-ed at The Huffington Post 

We spent all of April, National Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month, making a rallying cry to pay attention to our cause and to take some time to understand a very challenging topic that many of us know intimately. I’ve said it before: I consider myself lucky. My life could have turned out very differently had I not taken my own childhood wounds into the light as a young adult.

According to a national survey of adolescents, 73 percent of child sexual abuse victims do not tell anyone about their abuse for at least a year and 45 percent of victims do not tell anyone for at least five years. Some never disclose. That means that among us, each and every day, there are children and youth who are suffering, carrying an unbelievable burden and all the while perhaps sending us subtle clues of their shame. While exact numbers are hard to come by, more than 40 million adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse are also in our midst.

We can easily conjure up compassion for very young children who have been raped or molested. The very thought is frightful and we know these young children are blameless victims. Every day I see people deeply moved and transformed to take action because of the heartbreaking stories of 9 and 10-year-olds cared for in our children’s advocacy center.

I have seen, however, some on juries lose that compassionate response if the victims are teens — their innocence somehow doubted, especially if their behavior or appearance is in any way suggestive of “troubled youth.” And compassion is almost non-existent if these victims transition into self-destruction or acting out.

Teens exposed to sexual abuse, for instance, have higher rates of teen pregnancy, are more likely to have intercourse by the age of 15, are less likely to use condoms and are more likely to have multiple sexual partners. When it comes to the issue of prostitution,85 percent of those who were prostituted reported a history of sexual abuse in childhood; 70 percent reported incest. High rates of depression, alcohol and drug abuse are noted in the literature for those victimized by childhood sexual abuse. The Adverse Childhood Event database has spawned numerous scholarly articles that reflect the poor health outcomes of those who have not found their path to healing, including a higher than average prevalence of future intimate partner violence.

Read the full op-ed at The Huffington Post 

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Things to Remember: Protecting Children this Holiday Season

This season is busy with shopping, feasting and possibly travelling.  In preparation for the holiday festivities, let’s also prepare to protect our children this holiday season! We typically see a spike in child abuse reports over the holidays or summer breaks. This is because children don’t have the structure of a school schedule and are around people they may not typically be exposed to. Below are a few tips to keep in mind:

LOVE. Kids who are confident, who feel loved, valued and supported are much less likely to be victimized.  It could cause discomfort to talk with our children directly about abuse so at the very least, for today, let’s all take time to tell our kids that we adore them, we would lay down our lives for them, we are on their team and they can come to us about anything.

AWARENESS. Having an unstructured schedule can allow for more risks. Over the holidays, children will spend more time around their friends and in others homes.  They will be exposed to extended family members as well as spend more time on the internet. Protecting kids is not a spectator sport, and requires us to be involved and protective in each of these arenas.  Keep tabs on who is around your children and look for any changes in their mood or behavior after they return from somewhere.

TALK. The first points we want to address when communicating safety to our children is that we are on their side and they can talk to us about anything. The following statements are helpful reminders to our children that we are available to them:

  • If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, I want to know about that.
  • If someone hurts you in any way, I want you to tell me.
  • If someone scares you, I want to know about that.
  • If you are feeling sad or lonely, please tell me about it.
  • If you are confused about something, you can ask me.
  • If someone hurts your feelings, I want to know about that.

These are great precursors to going into more difficult topics. For our younger children, we may want to stop with the points above. However, no matter their age, it’s important to empower all children that they have a voice, and they will be heard when they talk to us.

When talking to older children about keeping their bodies safe, do not make is a serious or dramatic conversation. Try to weave the messages below into everyday conversations. It’s important that we continually communicate these topics, rather than only talking to our children about it once. We want safety to be an ongoing dialogue with our children and not a one-time event. Try some of the following:

  • It’s mommy and daddy’s job to help keep you safe.  We love you so much and want to protect you.  You mean the world to us.  We will do all that we can to keep you safe.
  • Your body is beautiful and is yours.  You get to decide if you want someone to hug or kiss you. You don’t have to hug or kiss anyone you don’t want to.  It’s OK to say, “No thank you – I don’t want to hug you.”
  • The parts of your body that your bathing suit covers (front and back) are your private parts. 
  • Only mommy and daddy (and/or name a caregiver) can help you if you need help in the bathroom. 
  • If someone tries to touch any of your private parts, I want to know about it.

In response to:  “But why would someone touch/hurt me?” do not lie to children. We want to be the people they come to for answers! Let them know the following:

  • Sometimes people make decisions that hurt other people.  It is usually because they don’t understand that what they are doing is hurtful.  It’s my job to help you if someone hurts you, hurts your feelings or scares you.
  • Not everyone in the world cares about children the way I/we do.  Sometimes people make bad decisions and do things that aren’t right, or treat children in a way that makes them uncomfortable, or even hurts them.  You need to know that it is never a child’s fault if an adult hurts or touches them inappropriately.

If we as parents, educators and advocates begin to talk about these issues more frequently, then the current statistic that only 1 in 10 children ever tell about their abuse will begin to change. If WE begin to talk then KIDS will begin to talk. By becoming an empowered society of aware and protective individuals, we are creating a safer future for our children to disclose their abuse, receive the help they need and become a strong survivor!

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Great Coverage for our Cause

Many thanks to The Guardian News and Truth-Out for publishing and republishing this Op-Ed piece.

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Language is Powerful

Maybe I’m overly sensitive.  Okay, yes, I will admit it: I am overly sensitive.  I will say that I didn’t respond positively to the language in a recent Dallas Morning News article highlighting the new national database of exonerations.  The reporter, Wendy Hundley, wrote:

“Child sexual abuse cases were found to be the most fabricated crimes, based on the 70 exonerations for those types of offense that were included in the database.”

My immediate reaction was that this kind of language perpetuates a common misconception that children make up stories about sexual abuse, when in reality, we see that in only a fraction of situations.  When we do see it, it almost always occurs when there is a parent involved in coaching a child to make up a story.  I won’t even begin to say what I think about parents who put their kids through this special kind of hell.

The reality is that most kids don’t lie when it comes to disclosure of sexual abuse.  The reality is that sometimes it takes years for children to come forward to speak their truth.  The reality is, agencies like ours were created to give children a safe place to unburden themselves from what is all too frequently a life of shame and confusion most of us can only vaguely imagine.

Our unbiased, non-leading, non-suggestive forensic interviews can amost always detect when a child has been coached.  That is another benefit of the work that we do.  And then those cases don’t move forward in the criminal courts system.

Because I was fired up, I did a little digging into these 70 cases referenced in the article.  Of the 70 exonerations that were related to child sexual abuse, a dozen of them occurred in Texas.  Seven of them were from Dallas County.  All of those occurred either before our agency existed or would have been types of cases that would not have come through here.  At least that’s what my quick review indicates.  Am confirming this with our District Attorney. 

We don’t want anyone going to jail or prison for crimes they didn’t commit.  We want the truth to prevail.  We want justice for our children who have been harmed.  There is no “but” at the end of those  comments.  There is only an “and.” 

And, we need to tell the whole story on the complexity and sensitivity of these types of crimes against children and try not to use words like “fabricated” in the same sentence.  The general public needs to know how difficult it is for kids who have been sexually abused to come forward, how their lives are certainly not immediately better because of their disclosure, how their families sometimes turn against them when they disclose.  It is with great courage that these children come forward.  We should honor that in every way possible.

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Internet Safety

We are frequently called upon to provide guidance to parents around the issue of Internet Safety.  Here are some common points we make:

  • Social networking sites allow kids a way to connect, to express themselves and to communicate easily with friends.  There are, however, some safety issues that should be addressed by parents, in the same tone and every-day manner that we like parents to talk about safety in the “real” world.   Parents should note that Facebook and other social networking sites are for 13 year-olds and up.
  • Parents should monitor their children’s activities just as they would any other activity.  We don’t give our kids car keys and wish them well in their driving.  We send them to classes, we teach them, we practice with them, we talk about our expectations on safety and rules of behavior.  We need to have those same kinds of discussions with them around Internet usage, social media, email and texting.  What are your expectations as a parent for your child’s behavior?  Here are some of mine:
    • I expect that you will treat others with respect online and not post or text anything that would be hurtful or embarassing.
    • I expect that you will not post or text inappropriate pictures of yourself or others.
    • I want to know who your friends are online and expect that you won’t make friends online with anyone you don’t know in the real world.
    • I expect that you won’t give out private information about yourself (even though some research indicates that 75% of kids are willing to do this).
    • If you receive a sexual or embarassing message, text, posting, photo, etc., I want to know about it.
    • I want to be the one to help you with difficult questions.  If you are uncomfortable talking to me about something, let me find someone we trust for you to talk to. 
  • Figure out where you stand as parents along the continuum of completely hands off to completely paranoid.  Try to fall somewhere in the middle and adjust your level of monitoring based on whether or not your child demonstrates good judgment over a period of time.  Select a monitoring tool or set of tools to help you.  I personally use a program called Safety Web that allows me to set alerts for texts, social networking posts, etc. to notify me of trigger words for depression, drug/alcohol use, bullying, suspicious contact, friends who are over 18, texts that are made or received at certain times of day (late night to early morning).  There are a number of great resources for parents that are reviewed here.
  • Engage your child/youth in dialogue on a regular basis.  Take some great tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that are age-appropriate and on a variety of topics.  Learn more here.  Pick an issue like Inappropriate Content for Children and select a discussion starter like:  What would you do if you came across a pop-up of a naked person or a hate website regarding a specific religion?
  • Remember that we were all kids once, and that we all did things that were perhaps not utilizing the best possible judgment.  The implications for these actions and decisions today, because we live in such a high speed, connected, virtually viral world, are higher for our kids.  Talk to your youth about consequences (like college and employer screening of content) of their decisions, and encourage them always to think before they post.
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How Do We Keep Our Children Safe?

As we are out in the community talking with different parent groups, some common questions arise.  Here they are, as well as how we answer:

When should I start talking to my children about personal safety?
We feel confident that you already talk to your children about safety issues.  You teach them to buckle their seatbelts and how to cross the street.  You’ve probably had a conversation about not talking to strangers.

We recommend the same sort of “everyday” dialogue be used with children when talking about challenging subjects like sexual abuse, bullying, etc., and that this dialogue be an ongoing one in the framework of personal safety.  Try to refrain from a “scary” talk when something has alarmed you as a parent.  Wait until you are calm and not in a reactive or panicked mode.

Here are some personal safety messages that can be woven into conversations (NOT ALL GIVEN AT ONE TIME) as your children grow.  Also, keep in mind that you are not trying to prepare your children for every possible scenario or situation that might arise – you are trying to help them learn to be confident and empowered so that they are less likely to become targets.  Those who act as predators against children sometimes look for children they think will be compliant or who appear vulnerable.

Some of the messages below are simple messages even for very small and school aged children.  As you go down the list, you will see that the messages are more appropriate for older children. You want to introduce these gradually, over time, as your children grow, finding moments where it makes sense in your parenting.   (Tweak to fit your family structure and circumstances as well as gender of your child.)

  • It’s mommy and daddy’s job to help keep you safe.  We love you so much and want to protect you.  You mean the world to us.  We will do all that we can to keep you safe.
  • Your body is beautiful and is yours.  You get to decide if you want someone to hug or kiss you. You don’t have to hug or kiss anyone you don’t want to.  It’s OK to say, “No – I don’t want to hug you.  I get to choose.” 
  • The parts of your body that your bathing suit covers (front and back) are your private parts.  
  • Only mommy and daddy (and/or name a caregiver) can help you if you need help in the bathroom.  Sometimes a doctor might need to check to see if everything is OK in your private parts.  Nobody else should touch you there.
  • If someone tries to touch any of your private parts, I want to know about it.
  • It’s not OK if someone wants you to keep secrets from me.
  • If someone makes you feel uncomfortable or icky, I want to know about that.
  • If someone hurts you in any way, I want to know about that.
  • If someone tells you not to tell me something, or scares you, I want to know about that.
  • If you are feeling sad or lonely, I want to know about that.
  • If you are confused about something that someone says to you, I want to know about that.
  • If someone hurts your feelings, I want to know about that.
  • In response to:  But why would someone hurt me? — Sometimes older children, teenagers or adults make decisions that hurt other people.  It is usually because they don’t understand that what they are doing is hurtful.  It’s my job to help you if someone hurts you or hurts your feelings or scares you.
  • Who do you feel comfortable talking to when you have a problem?  I hope you will always feel comfortable talking to me.  Remember that it’s my job to help you if you are feeling sad or lonely or scared.  (You may also want to identify other people you want to refer your child to if he/she has something to talk about that he/she is uncomfortable talking with you about, like a teacher or school counselor.)
  • I want to support you and help you.  I want you to feel like you can trust me with your feelings and your concerns.  I can handle more than you think I can. 
  • Not everyone in the world cares about children the way I/we do.  Sometimes people make bad decisions and do things that aren’t right, or treat children in a way that makes them uncomfortable, or even hurts them.  You need to know that it is never a child’s fault if an adult acts inappropriately.
  • It is always OK to tell me if something is bothering you.  If you see something going on with one of your friends and your friend seems like she is hurting in some way, I want you to talk to me about that.

For tweens/teens, you can introduce more complex dialogue and have some back and forth.  Here’s an example of how to introduce a complex topic.

  • I read a story in the newspaper about a young girl about your age, and a soccer coach (someone she trusted) was touching her in a sexual way.  It went on for a long time because the girl was afraid to tell anyone, and she also believed it was a special relationship and didn’t want her coach to be in trouble.  How do you think you would respond if an adult tried to do something like this to you?  Who could you tell?  If this girl was your friend, what advice would you give her?  (You will want to follow up with your own thoughts, give guidance, praise your youth for showing good judgment, etc.)

How do I respond if my child discloses something to me that is shocking, discloses some sort of abuse, etc.?
Stay very calm.  Typically, if a child makes a disclosure of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, he/she may not tell you the whole story – but give you a small sample of what has happened to see how you will react.  If you respond in a crazy hair-on-fire rant, that child may not tell you anything further.  Be calm.  Take a deep breath.  Say things like:

  • I’m so glad you told me.
  • Thank you for telling me this.  I know this is hard for you to talk about.
  • Tell me as much as you would like.
  • This wasn’t your fault.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep or judge the person who the child says has harmed him/her.  Refrain from saying things like:

  • I’m going to see that this never happens again.
  • Your <uncle/brother/father/mother> is a bad person and should be in jail.

What if the child begs me not to tell anyone?
Let the child know that it is your job and responsibility as a protective adult to do what you think is right.

What if a child hasn’t said anything to me, but I have seen or heard something that makes me think that a child is being harmed — but I don’t know for sure that something has happened?
As an adult in the State of Texas, you are mandated by law to make a report if you suspect abuse.  You do not have to investigate.  Allow the authorities to do that.

What do I do next?
Call 9-1-1 or Child Protective Services.  In the State of Texas, the Child Abuse Hotline is 1-800-252-5400 (and you may remain anonymous) or for an online report (which may not be made anonymously).  A judge can ask CPS to disclose the identity of the person who made the report, so if the case goes to trial, your name could be revealed.

Will making a report to 9-1-1 or CPS ruin someone’s life?
Oftentimes, we think that taking this action means that a child will be removed from his/her home.  In only a small percentage of time, CPS determines that a child is not safe at home.  The vast majority of time, CPS works with families to help the adults in the family receive services like counseling, parenting, drug or alcohol treatment, etc.  If law enforcement determines that a crime has been committed, they will take appropriate action according to the law.

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Single Moms

Much has been written of late regarding single moms and child abuse following a Wisconsin bill sponsored by State Senator Glen Grothman and State Representative Donald Pridemore “requiring the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board to emphasize nonmarital parenthood as a contributing factor to child abuse and neglect” (Wisconsin Senate Bill 507).  The Bill, by the way, failed to pass.

I am a former single parent.  I got married at 18, had my first child at 19, the second at 21 — and then divorced a few years later when I realized I hadn’t made the best decisions in my young life.  That divorce was the right decision.  I worked full time, started attending college over lunch hours and did the best I could for my very small girls.  I made a decision that my girls would know that I loved them no matter what, that I would be a good mother, that I would learn what I needed to learn in order to provide for them, to build a better life for them than I had once had.  I knew that education was the path to success, and I chipped away at a degree sometimes one class at a time over the next ten years.  

I had many sleepless nights as I realized just how vulnerable we all were, with no savings, no safety net, no strong family support system.  I knew we were one paycheck away from being homeless, and I honestly still can’t pass a homeless woman on the street without thinking, “That could be me.” 

It was a terrifying and humbling time but also a time when creativity emerged.  I connected with another single mom, and we helped each other. We relied on each other for encouragement and logistical support (getting child A from point X to Y and such).  We cried together when we felt desperate or lonely.  I learned how to ask for help when I needed it from other friends, mental health providers and clergy.  I built my own safety net.  I learned.  I grew.  I loved my kids with all that I had.  And we made it through.

I consider myself lucky.  It could have all been very, very different.

When I think back on those times and wonder — what if I hadn’t found the ability to create that support system?  Would my children have been even more vulnerable?  Could I have taken my eyes off of them and exposed them to people who could have hurt them?  Could I have been so exhausted from working full time, going to school, studying, making breakfasts and lunches and dinners – and still trying to find time to play or color or dress up dolls, read to them and sing them a song every night — that I could have, myself, lost my composure and hurt them?  Maybe. Possibly. Humbly – yes.  Any of those things could have happened.  But they didn’t. 

Risk factors for child abuse are varied and complex.  From the US Department of Health and Human Services:

There is no single known cause of child maltreatment. Nor is there any single description that captures all families in which children are victims of abuse and neglect. Child maltreatment occurs across socio-economic, religious, cultural, racial, and ethnic groups. While no specific causes definitively have been identified that lead a parent or other caregiver to abuse or neglect a child, research has recognized a number of risk factors or attributes commonly associated with maltreatment. Children within families and environments in which these factors exist have a higher probability of experiencing maltreatment. It must be emphasized, however, that while certain factors often are present among families where maltreatment occurs, this does not mean that the presence of these factors will always result in child abuse and neglect (

So, yes, I was one of the former single moms who was outraged when I read that Wisconsin Senate Bill with its broad brush and simplistic representation of what is, in actuality, a complex and nuanced issue.

And yes, I will always remember and will always remind other moms and those I speak to in the community that we do have to help each other, support each other, and help each other find a way through life’s challenges — for the sake of all of the kids in our community.  If I hadn’t had the help and support of many, if I hadn’t made a decision to do better for my own kids, who really knows what might have happened.

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