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Opinion: Child abuse national epidemic; media not helping

It seems that every time I turn on the news there is another story of a child being beaten, starved or assaulted by the very people who are supposed to keep our children safe.

(Photo by Fiona St. Pierre/Kokopelli)

Chances are, we all know a child who is being hurt. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately one in ten children in the U.S. is the victim of abuse and/or neglect. Close to five children die every day in this country due to abuse.

Additionally, one in nine girls and one in 53 boys will be sexually abused before they reach the age of 18, according to data published by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).

So really, that story on the news does not begin to address the larger problem. Child abuse is a national epidemic.

So where are the teams of professionals or the 24/7 newsroom coverage, all angling to figure out the problem?

Child abuse is a widespread issue that’s tossed to a handful of overburdened and underfunded government agencies and nonprofits. Why is an epidemic more significant than Ebola treated like a common cold?

One answer to that is a lack of public understanding. Yes, some people may feel this is such a sensitive subject that it’s easier to just ignore child abuse than to have a conversation about it. These people will always be a factor.

“Media professionals sit in a perfect position to help. It’s not a matter of advocating, it’s a matter of in-depth reporting.”

There’s more to it than that, though. Last week something dawned on me. I was watching a news report about a local middle school principal. He had been charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse. The story mentioned he had been “grooming” his victims. One of my professors who was watching with me turned and asked me what grooming is. That was my a-ha moment.

Here is someone who is highly educated and tuned in to the world, and yet this person was unfamiliar with a term that is considered basic knowledge within organizations that deal with child abuse. The news report didn’t elaborate on grooming, either.

So, along with the general problem of the stigma associated with child abuse, there is obviously a communication issue as well.

I am going to take this moment to explain grooming in basic terms. It’s when an adult uses attention, secrets and intimidation to manipulate a child. It starts off with forms of individual attention, like small gifts or special activities. It seems harmless.

Once the adult has won the child’s trust, the adult will exploit the relationship. The adult will push that child away from family or friends. At this point, the child might feel dependent on the adult. The adult also will use secrets as a form of control. The adult will make the child feel guilty or ashamed about what has happened, which can prevent the child from telling anyone about the abuse.

Grooming usually is a slow process. The primary purpose is to put children in a vulnerable position and isolate them from the people who would protect them.

Children don’t speak out because they feel guilty, ashamed, or do not realize they are being abused. They are usually led to believe that what’s happening is a special relationship or some form of love.

Media professionals sit in a perfect position to help. It’s not a matter of advocating, it’s a matter of in-depth reporting. In a world composed of sound bites and quick quotes, the details are lost or ignored.

If the average person doesn’t even understand what behaviors to look for, how can we protect our children?

Forget about the perpetrators. I am not implying we should try them in the court of public opinion. Leave that for the judicial system. What I am saying is the media need to educate the public beyond the basic 30-second public service announcement.

By shining light on the subject and educating people about child abuse, we can generate more funding — funding that could be used to treat child abuse like the epidemic it is.

It’s worth taking a stand if it means keeping our kids out of harm’s way.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to New Mexico State University, the NMSU Department of Journalism and Media Studies, Kokopelli, or any other organization, committee, group or individual. 

One Comment

  1. Grooming should definitely be talked about at all levels… even parents are groomed to entrust their children with perpetrators (Oprah did an excellent show on this a while back). As for wide spread child abuse, I firmly believe young, single parents are lacking not just the education but the support to make choices that keep their children out of these situations. We need better education and support for our young people, especially those coming from low socioeconomic conditions.

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