Let’s admit it. State agencies tasked with given the noble mission of protecting children from abuse and neglect are essentially running band-aid dispensaries. The brave workers who staff these beleaguered agencies enter a human battlefield every day charged with the assignment of trying to mend the broken lives of mothers, fathers, and other various adults living in households struggling to be safe havens for children. Sometimes band-aids can help close wounds from the damaged childhoods many of these adults have faced and healing allows them to become better caregivers than they ever had. In too many cases, however, band-aids can’t heal the deep injuries caused by what are now referred to as “ACEs” or adverse childhood experiences. As a result, their children often become the next victims in line to suffer physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect. Often the brilliant spirits of these children are dimmed; sometimes they are extinguished, despite our best intentions and fallible human efforts.
Many in Massachusetts continue to mourn the death of 2-year old Baby Bella and are confounded as to how such a bright and hopeful child could have met such a sad end. The terrible truth is there is great sense in this seemingly senseless tragedy.
Over a decade ago, CDC and Kaiser Permanente conducted the seminal Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, the largest study of its kind ever done to examine the health and social effects of adverse childhood experiences over the lifespan. It involved 17,000 participants from Kaiser’s pool of HMO members who were asked to identify which of ten ACEs they had experienced growing up. These included: abuse (physical, sexual or emotional), neglect (physical or emotional), and living in a household experiencing divorce or separation, alcohol/substance abuse, mental illness, violence, suicidal behavior and/or imprisonment of a household member.
Researchers documented that the more ACEs a person had experienced, the more likely they would engage in high risk health behaviors, including smoking, overeating, abusing alcohol or drugs, having 50 or more sexual partners, etc. For example, an ACE score of 6 increased by 4,600 percent one’s chances of becoming an IV drug user. Individuals with an ACE score of ten faced an astoundingly high likelihood that they would find themselves living on the street, serving a life sentence in prison, or dead by their own hand.
Researchers then were able to link the high-risky behaviors of these individuals to the most common causes of disease and death in our country, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes, to name a few. With an ACE score of 4 or more, the likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increased 390%; hepatitis, 240%; depression 460%; suicide, 1,220%.
Clearly, billions of dollars are spent each year as child welfare, health/mental health, law enforcement and court systems struggle to deal with the aftermath of child maltreatment. If we want to prevent abuse and neglect and ensure each child’s right to the safe and healthy childhood they deserve, every person - whether governor or grandmother, neighbor or legislator, mother or mayor - must make a commitment to support vulnerable parents, and reduce children’s exposure to adverse childhood experiences. We must interrupt the trajectory that leads traumatized children to become traumatized adults who then traumatize their children.
Doing this will first require a shift in our personal and collective thinking. We cannot continue to marginalize those who engage in high risk health behaviors as being “bad people” who just lack morals and the will power to get their lives together. As the ACE study demonstrated, many are simply trying to survive emotionally by numbing the pain and trying to erase the memories of their traumatic, dysfunctional childhoods. Unfortunately, these survival strategies for coping work but only temporarily before they begin to create their own web of problems, such as injected drug use, alcoholism, morbid obesity, chronic depression, etc. As a result, too many find themselves living the kind of life they swore they would never replay for their own children.
I don’t know the reasons Baby Bella’s aunt publicly described Bella’s mother Rachelle as “a very, very angry woman” or why the mother turned to drugs, prostitution, and a string of men with their own demons. I don’t know what drove Michael McCarthy, Baby Bella’s alleged murderer, to punch the life out of her tiny body. But the ACE study helps me imagine why.
How many adverse experiences rocked Michael McCarthy’s world when he was an innocent child with all the promising possibilities of life before him? What traumas did Rachelle suffer through when she was the bright, hopeful child that was later reflected in Bella’s beautiful face? The confirmed links between traumatic childhood experiences and later adult dysfunction and disease, does not dictate that those who hurt children should not be held accountable. But it may help us understand why a mother who described Bella as “my love, my soul, my life” was unable to keep the most precious person in her life safe from the abuser who killed her.
Jetta Bernier, Executive Director
MassKids ~ Prevent Child Abuse Massachusetts
We Need Your Support
Since its formation in 1959, MassKids has continued to tackle the complex and sometimes controversial issues facing vulnerable children.
- In the 60s, MassKids worked successfully to remove mentally ill children from adult psychiatric wards.
- In the 70’s our data alerted the state to the growing problem of drug-addicted newborns, and to the links between teen suicides and sexual identify issues.
- In the 80’s we worked to protect homeless and runaway youth from HIV, filed a class action against the state for its inadequate child protection system, and conducted the first media campaign in the country on child sexual abuse prevention.
- In the 90’s MassKids was the first group to work to prevent infant deaths and disabilities from Shaken Baby Syndrome, and to successfully challenge the withholding of necessary medical care for seriously ill children by their faith-healing parents.
- Since 2002 our work to address child sexual abuse has resulted in the engagement of numerous communities and thousands of citizens across the state through our Enough Abuse Campaign which the CDC has called “a trailblazing effort.”
MassKids latest concern is for young girls who reside in our state whose families support the practice of FGM – female genital mutilation. The long-term physical and psychological trauma resulting from this practice have been documented internationally by the United Nations and locally by physicians at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. MassKids is working with the Women’s Bar Association to develop strategies to combat this practice. We want to find ways to engage, rather than alienate, members of communities whose traditional beliefs have supported the practice as necessary to ensure the future marriageability of their daughters. MassKids seeks to speak out for these girls because their voices – and quite literally their screams – are not being heard by those on whom they most depend upon for their safety and health.
In 2015, when you consider supporting an organization that is working tirelessly and effectively for the most vulnerable children of our state, please choose MassKids. Your donation is critical to our ongoing work, since, as we have learned, foundations are often reluctant to support issues they haven’t already included in their wheelhouse or issues they believe might be too difficult or controversial. These are precisely the issues that MassKids has been drawn to over its 55-year history. Our mission is to speak out for the most vulnerable children of our state and to amplify their tiny voices. Please add your voice to make ours and theirs stronger by making a generous contribution to MassKids today.
What your gift would help us to achieve in 2015:
- Expand the Enough Abuse Campaign on child sexual abuse prevention to new Massachusetts communities;
- Train and deploy cadres of new trainers on child sexual abuse prevention through our 2-day "Training of Trainers" in new Campaign communities;
- Provide consultation to schools and youth organizations around improving screening practices for new employees and volunteers, reporting cases of sexual abuse, and establishing codes of conduct to identify inappropriate behaviors before they can escalate to illegal acts of sexual abuse;
- Print and distribute our teaching tools: "Straight Talk about Child Sexual Abuse: A Prevention Guide for Parents" and our "Practical Guide to Make Your Organization Safer" for Youth-Serving Organizations;
- Convene "Prevention Summit II" in 2015 to continue building the skills of schools and youth organizations to prevent child sexual abuse;
- Continue enriching our websites with the latest information on all aspects of child abuse and ways to prevent it;
- Continue to educate parents of newborns, family-serving professionals, health care providers and hospitals about Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma through dissemination of our highly regarded teaching DVDs, booklets and trainings.
Your gift would enable us to persue our 2015 Legislative Agenda:
- MassKids supports mandating comprehensive child sexual abuse prevention education for staff and volunteers in schools and youth-serving organizations. Bill language drafted by MassKids stresses that reporting cases after the fact or trying to identify victims – features of legislation in other states – does not constitute a comprehensive prevention strategy. MassKids supports also training to spot behaviors that might indicate an adult poses a sexual risk to children; understand and respond to child-on-child sexual abuse; and, institute codes of conduct in schools and youth-serving organizations that can identify early-on the physical and psychological boundary violations that, if left unchecked, could develop into reportable sexual offenses.
- MassKids proposes a bill to address educator sexual misconduct and abuse – a problem the U.S. Department of Education reports is affecting 10%, or 4.5 million, American school children K-12. The bill would require public and private schools to complete extensive and specifically detailed reviews of applicants who would be directly involved with children. It would prohibit schools from knowingly transferring or facilitating the transfer of any school employee if the school knows or has reason to believe the employee engaged in sexual misconduct with an elementary or high school student.
- MassKids supports legislation to make it a criminal offense for any school employee having supervisory responsibility of a student - irrespective of the student's age - to engage in any sexual behavior with that child or youth. Currently, educators who sexually abuse a student who has reached the age of consent (16) will most often escape any criminal charges.
- MassKids seeks to add five new categories of professionals mandated to report suspected child abuse under the state's 51a child abuse reporting law. These include: coaches, tutors, domestic violence workers, animal control and humane officers, and commercial film or photo processors.
- In 2000 the African Women's Health center at Brigham and Women's Hospital estimated that 227,887 women and girls were at risk for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Girls at risk currently reside in Massachusetts, including Boston, Lawrence, and Worcester. FGM is recognized internationally as a human rights violation, torture, and an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls. MassKids supports legislation drafted by the Massachusetts Women's Bar Association that would strengthen our state's current child abuse laws to make sure that the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is understood as being illegal and unacceptable.
Massachusetts Citizens for Children (MassKids) is the oldest state-based child advocacy organization in the country. Our mission is to improve the lives of the state's most vulnerable children through advocacy by concerned citizens. It was founded in 1959 by pediatrician Martha May Eliot, MD, who served as Chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau and held influential positions in both the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). With active support from Governor Foster Furculo, they established MCC as a permanent, independent citizens’ voice for Massachusetts’ most vulnerable children.
Throughout its 55-year history, our organization’s work has been grounded in the belief that all Massachusetts children have the inherent right -
- To be safe from abuse, neglect, and violence;
- To be economically secure and free from poverty;
- To receive quality medical and preventive care;
- To learn in quality child care and school settings; and
- To live in caring families and healthy communities.
Since 1986 MassKids has served as the Massachusetts Chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America. MassKids currently works to prevent child abuse through the work of the Shaken Baby Syndrome Prevention Center and the soon to be launched "Choose Your Partner Carefully" project. It leads the Enough Abuse Campaign - a multi-state initiative working to educate and mobilize parents, professionals and communities to prevent child sexual abuse. Click here for highlights of MassKids' work and accomplishments for children.