Breaking the Silence, and Stigma, of Child Abuse

By: Tammy Karuza, One Step Away vendor & writer, child abuse survivor


Darkness always surrounded me in my memory of that place; Plato’s cave, where I was chained to the wall of deception by a tyranny of custom. It was a sad place; the walls were painted with tears of sorrow, the carpet the color of pain. It was a desolate place; hope ran away at an early age, dreams were forbidden there, and innocence died young.

In his allegory of the cave, Plato felt that we are chained to a wall – where shapes play out delusions caused by a fire on the other side of an opposing wall (which only goes high enough so that we cannot see that it is the fire which is causing the shapes on the wall before us). According to Plato, only when we choose to break the chains, which keep us looking at these shadows of deception, and crawl out of the cave, can we achieve enlightenment and see the world for what it really is. There are many realities with which America chooses the wall of deception over enlightenment, but one is more horrific than the rest . . . I am referring to child abuse.

It’s hard for a small child, who is pounded on regularly by “mom” to feel secure in a world full of big people. The world was a big frightening place for me. When I was a teenager I tried to talk to several people about some of the things going on in my childhood home. Few would believe that someone they “liked” would do such evil things, and even fewer were willing to help me. Not only was I damned by the abuse itself, but also by a society that left me feeling as though it were my own fault I was being abused, forcing me to live in a world of darkness, chained to a wall of lies by those who preferred it that way. Child abuse was – and still is – the kind of taboo topics, considered too offensive for some people, and too difficult for others.


Timeline of Child Abuse


1874: First recognized case of child abuse in the United States.
In the 1800s, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was recognized as a legal entity, with a charter and police force, but children had no such protection. One woman, Etta Wheeler, went out of her way to change the life of one abused child – Mary Ellen McCormack. Ms. Wheeler enlisted the help of the SPCA’s New York Chapter’s investigators and lawyers, in what would become the first recognized child abuse case in the United States, brought to court in 1874. Only after that was it realized that child abuse is a problem, but it still remained hidden. A year later, the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC) was born – the first child protection agency in the world. Child protection agencies began to spread across the United States, but child welfare was left largely to localities and states to oversee. Then in 1912, President Taft created the Children’s Bureau, the first federal agency to focus exclusively on improving the lives of children and families. During this time, the idea of state and federal social services began to take hold, putting more responsibility on governments. When the Great Depression hit many child protection societies closed or merged, shifting responsibility to the police, courts, or no one. With no organized protection services many children and communities were left to fend for themselves.



1962: Dr. Henry Kempe published The Battered-Child Syndrome, giving doctors a way to identify and report child abuse or neglect for the first time.
For the first time doctors could identify and report child abuse or neglect due toThe Battered-Child Syndrome. Emerging news stories, combined with medical professional testaments, sparked public attention. The government responded by creating the Child Protection Services (CPS), and enacting child abuse reporting laws. These laws exposed the prevalence of child abuse and neglect, with 60,000 reports by 1974, shifting national attention from simply reporting child abuse, to protecting children. The Child Abuse and Prevention Treatment Act (CAPTA) was signed into law, eight years after the Animal Welfare Act.



1974: Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act signed into law. 60,000 reports of child abuse and neglect.
With the passing of CAPTA, government, state, and local entities established regulations and supports for children in unsafe homes. Often kids were placed in foster homes. Quickly, these regulations overwhelmed social workers and the foster care system.



1980s: Over 1 million reports of child abuse and neglect.


Congress responded by requiring states to make “reasonable efforts” to avoid removing children from their homes. “Family preservation” dominated. Children placed in foster care needed a plan to return home or terminate parental rights.



1990s: 2 million reports of child abuse and neglect.


Over the years, the role of Child Protective Services and confusion over federal or state responsibility, left so many children’s lives in the hands of their volatile parents. Often with deadly results. In 1995 Time Magazine’s cover featured Elisa Izquierdo. Elisa was tortured to death by her own mother, even though she was turned in to CPS eight times in her six years of life. A black and white photo of Elisa appeared on the cover with text reading, “A Shameful Death: let down by the sytem, murdered by her mom, a little girl symbolizes America’s failure to protect its children.” Until this case, no one seemed to notice whether CPS workers were doing their jobs. Elisa’s death renewed public and government interest, with [then] Mayor Giuliani forming a task force to investigate the city’s child welfare services.



2000s: 3 million reports of child abuse and neglect.


The internet is rife with stories of children dying after having been turned into CPS or while being an open case at CPS. In 2009, Texas Senator Carlos Uresti authored a law, requiring Texas child welfare services to provide the public with a detailed report on child abuse cases where abuse is thought to be the direct cause of death. In spite of all of these efforts by lawmakers, child abuse has become such a huge problem in our country that an estimated total of death from child abuse according to CPS was 1,580 for 2014. In other words, a classroom full of children die in this country from abuse every seven days. TheCenter forDiseaseControl (CDC) lists homicide by assault as the third leading cause of death in children aged 1–4 in this country. However, the CDC also states that the statistics “may underestimate the true occurrence of abuse and neglect”, because it may not be noted as such on death certificates. They concluded that one in four children have experienced some type of abuse in their lifetime, and in 2015 one in seven children were victims of abuse or neglect. The CDC also say that reporting and monitoring non-fatal child abuse cases needs to be improved, and the fact that they are illmonitored is a flaw in the American system.



The Lasting Effects


As a survivor, who had slipped through the proverbial cracks several times, it’s easy for me to point the finger at social workers, but after careful research I found that many social workers don’t stay at the job for very long. According to a 2016 My Statesman article – written in reference to the Texas CPS – the trouble comes from a combination of wage, caseload, and elevated stress which is causing a high turnover. Stressed and understaffed state welfare systems leave many children alone, in harmful situations.

I have been turned into CPS at least three separate times, that I know of, here in Philly. I left that hell-hole the day I turned 18. I am now 52 years old and finally stopped having nightmares of my childhood ten years ago at the age of 42. Eric Hazelwood, another One Step Away vendor, was fifteen when the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act was signed into law. His abuse began at the age of seven and continued until he was 15. The mental, physical, and sexual abuse has affected every area of his life.


One might think that to survive such horrific indignities, one would consider themselves “lucky to be alive,” but it’s a rare moment when I actually feel “lucky” to have survived my childhood. Truth be known, many of us don’t feel very “lucky.”

Here’s why . . .

According to the Australian Institute for Family Studies, the longterm consequences of child abuse include mental and physical health issues, and a lifetime cycle of abuse and violence. A 2012 Time Magazine article referred to child abuse as “the tabacco industry of mental health.” This article goes on to say that Harvard researchers used brain scans on 200 volunteer subjects, showingmedical evidence that child abuse causes changes in certain regions of the brain, and pre-sets the brain of the survivor for mental health issues later on.

Both Eric and I have been diagnosed with PTSD, we have deepseated trust issues, and we both ended up working for a homeless newspaper because it seemed there was no other place for us to turn. At 57 he also still feels resentment for the childhood he never had. We are both struggling to turn surviving into thriving in a society that often shames us for how our lives turned out, all too often expected us to suffer our pain in silence, and carry the guilt on our shoulders that actually belong to others.

Children who experience a lack of care, along with physical or sexual abuse, are 26 times more likely to become homeless in adulthood, and 72% more likely to show adverse behaviors among their homeless peers.
There is also a strong link between child abuse and criminal activity. The Australian Institute of Family Studies suggests that child abuse causes criminal behavior in two ways: substance use and violence. Abuse victims learn that violence is a means of dealing with stress or resolving conflict.

You don’t learn to deal with your emotions like normal human beings are supposed to: it messes up your emotional development. This can lead to child abuse being passed down to the next generation, or a life filled with violence. An International Violence Against Women survey found that 72% of women who were victimized as children, were also victimized as adults. These facts are more than horrific, these truths are ripping apart the very fabric of who we are as a society.



Child abuse is the one shame we can no-longer hide from.


Child abuse is the one shame we can no-longer hide from. Because of our lack of priorities, the dirty secrets of the few have become the burden of the many. We cannot change how this beast looks by painting excuses over it. We cannot wash this stain away with red, white, and blue soap. Smoke-screens of the past have led the way to more problems, but there is more that we can do. I could have written this and shoved it in the back of my closet with the rest of my skeletons, but that would only give new life to a lie I have already lived with far too long. Robert Brault once said, “Worse than telling a lie, is spending your whole life staying true to a lie.”

If you have been abused, remember: you aren’t what your parents make you out to be. That’s the most important thing because it’s the mental abuse that gets you down the most. Don’t carry the blame for your abusive parents. It’s going to ruin your life. Utilize everything you can to find out who you are because underneath all of your pain and abuse, there’s someone wanting to get out so bad.

For someone who wants to help, I think the best thing you can do is get that child out of that situation. But then there is the foster care system, which is having problems of its own. If you can’t get that child into a safe place, be a point of light for that child. Try to build up their self-esteem. Let them know that they are someone special, that they were meant to be here.
I wish someone would’ve told me when I was growing up that it wasn’t my fault, but people didn’t act like that back then, and some people still don’t. If someone would’ve sat me down and said, ‘look, I know that I can’t stop your stepfather, but here’s something I want you to know’, and just explained to me how there’s a person inside of me that deserves better than what I was getting. When you let someone know that they did not deserve the abuse, that is the most important thing, because for years we tend to blame ourselves.

Garrett Snider, a local child advocate and founder of The Center for Childhood Resilience in Philadelphia, says the best way to prevent child abuse is to talk about it. “It’s a painful and uncomfortable subject, but understanding the problem is the only way to fix it. Speaking out takes courage and conviction. As long as we’re here, no one will be able to look away.” You can prevent child abuse by talking about it. Eric put it best when he said: “There is help for those still suffering abuse…help advocate for those experiencing abuse today, and let them know that they are not alone.”

To start these conversations, child advocacy nonprofit Darkness to Light offers Stewards of Light trainings. In partnership with the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children, trainings will be offered throughout the area during the month of April, Child Abuse Prevention Month. Get involved at: