Do you ever go about your daily life thinking everyone else lives essentially the same as you? It’s pretty natural, I think, to get so involved in our own lives that we quit seeing those around us; I mean really see them. Perhaps we even subconsciously choose to not see— at least I do.
About two years ago, I started a new journey that put me face to face each day with the reality that not everyone lives my same life. I started work for an organization whose mission is to prevent child abuse and neglect in Yamhill County and keep families together. Going to work every day meant that I could no longer go about my peaceful we-all-live-the-same-reality existence.
It was quite a shock to learn that in my county, and maybe even in my neighborhood, there were children being hurt, while I went about my everyday life. As a matter of fact, our neighborhoods have an abuse and neglect rate that is seven percent higher than the state rate.
Now, I’m a fairly passionate person who tends to feel things deeply. I was for sure moved by the statistics, but it wasn’t until I met little Mandy (not her real name) and her two brothers that I truly understood what this meant. This tiny baby was about 3 months old the first time I held her. Her mom was taking one of the parenting classes offered by A Family Place, and this sibling trio was in our childcare. This tiny girl would sometimes come to us in the same diaper she had worn all night. When I tried to look at her she would not maintain eye contact or track an object with her eyes, yet I knew she was beautifully and wonderfully made.
You see, what we know about childhood neglect, is that when very young babies do not get the care they need, their brains don’t develop the way their creator intended. We were intended for relationship, love and care. Our brains actually grow in size the more attention we receive. By the age of 3 years old, in fact, 80 percent of the brain is developed. It has grown with each touch, each sound of a parent’s voice, and each gaze into the eyes of someone who loves them dearly.
In Yamhill County, 44 percent of all the children who suffered abuse and neglect were under the age of 5. Their brains were still trying to grow and develop when life robbed them of their fullest potential. This means that in the coming years of their life, they will not be ready for kindergarten and will be more likely to need special education services. These children have a higher likelihood of involvement with juvenile justice or even adult corrections. Once more, their life spans are shorter due to the physical effects that have been shown to be products of these adverse childhood experiences1.
But even knowing the research and statistics didn’t impact me the way holding little Mandy did. She laid in my arms with relatively no reactions to my affection. She had already quit trying to ask for love and care. And I was furious—furious because I knew it didn’t have to be that way.
You see, I know that Mandy, her parents, and her brothers live in a world where people have the capacity to show love and care. As a matter of fact, Mandy’s mom was attending a class where she would learn how to better care for herself and her little family. While she was in class, people from our community volunteered their time to care for little children. Other volunteers took time to go pick up a mom who couldn’t drive and was overwhelmed with the prospect of riding the bus to class with three young children; I know I would be! And still others gave financial resources to make sure the kids had snacks, and quality curriculum could be given to each mom.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. I have hope that child abuse and neglect will be eradicated in my community, because I know there are things that each of us can do to help prevent neglect to babies like Mandy. Our creator made us to crave and need relationships. Any time you can create space in life to be in relationship with a child or an overwhelmed parent, you are doing the work of prevention. It could be through a program like A Family Place or Love INC’s Relational Ministry, or mentoring through Chehalem Youth & Family Services. It might be in our church’s ministries to children or youth. Maybe it could even simply be in your neighborhood with that family that lives a couple doors down. Other ways to join this effort, if time is not an easy commodity for you to give, might be to support any of the mentioned agencies with your financial resources or in-kind gifts. Even buying a package of diapers and donating it to the local emergency diaper bank can be part of this movement.
Gone are the days when I can go about my life thinking everyone lives my same reality. I have seen, heard, and held too much. I’m responsible for the truth I have been given. I have the privilege of being part of this movement each day when I go to work, and I hope you will join me in whatever way you can. I hope you will choose to see.
1For more on this check out the Adverse Childhood Experiences study.