Child abuse and neglect are serious public health problems worldwide with 4.3 million children being referred to child protection agencies each year. The United States has one of the worst records among industrialized nations, losing an average of five children a day to child abuse and neglect. That is why April is recognized as Child Abuse Awareness Month as communities nationwide dedicate their time to spread awareness of this alarming and ongoing problem, and advocate for the creation of programs, services and environments that put children first.
Children need a place where they feel safe. Unfortunately, that just doesn't always happen. We know that first-hand at Boys Town as the majority of our kids come to us having suffered from abuse and neglect at home.
A few years ago, Joey, a 10-year-old boy from Boys Town, walked up to me at one of our football games and gave me a compliment. He said, “You run a real safe place here, Father!" I said, “Well, thanks, Joey. What exactly makes you feel safe here?" He answered, “The squirrels." I asked him to explain, and he said, “Where I come from in New York, we throw rocks at the squirrels, so they run away from us whenever we walk down the street. But here at Boys Town, the squirrels are so tame you could feed them from your hand. If the squirrels are safe, everybody is safe!" I had never before thought of squirrels as a measure of safety, but clearly to Joey, it made all the difference.
Unfortunately, too many kids don't have a safe and trauma-free environment to call home and the consequences are alarming. Our MRI research at Boys Town suggests that kids who were abused have a heightened response to threats, which causes them to overrespond to even the slightest signs of danger, like a jumpy squirrel. Kids who were abused also can have difficulty predicting what actions will bring them reward or punishment, since the consequences they have received from the adults in their lives are so random, unpredictable and often extreme. The effects of child abuse and neglect follow kids for life.
Fortunately, our research also shows that with predictable adults and a safe environment, kids who were abused can learn problem-solving skills to enable them to make good decisions going forward. They can learn to overcome the abuse and trauma they have endured and go on to lead productive lives.
That's why at Boys Town, we are committed to providing programs and services to help ensure that all kids have the healthy and safe family environment they deserve. We believe that all kids and families should have the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive. It has been our guiding mission to serve children and heal families since Father Flanagan welcomed the first boys more than 100 years ago. We believe that child abuse and neglect can be prevented and that all communities benefit when children and families are supported.