Steps to prevent abuse

I recently watched “Quiet on Set,” a docuseries about alleged abuse at Nickelodeon. I spent many hours watching some of those memorable Nickelodeon shows with my children, never imagining that one day I would read these behind-the-scenes stories of abuse.

These revelations have unquestionably left a stain on those treasured memories of laughter and fun spent with my children as we watched those shows together.

I’ve worked in the child welfare sector for 30 years, and I still have a hard time digesting the plethora of abuse stories that have come to light. While these public scandals bring awareness to the gut-wrenching reality of child abuse, they often fail to talk about what we can do to prevent it.

Every April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, followed immediately by National Foster Care Awareness Month in May. It is dedicated to raising awareness and empowering people to care for and protect children. This month raises some important questions: How do we, both as a community and as individuals, prevent child abuse? And where do we even start? As the month ends, it presents an opportunity to learn and start conversations about prevention.

The reality is, most people don’t know the tragic severity of child abuse in their own communities, so let’s address some facts. According to the Texas Department of Families and Protective Services, approximately 73% of children in the foster care system were there due to abuse or neglect in 2023. In Texas, more than 12,000 cases of child abuse and 2,000 cases of child neglect were reported in 2022. These are alarming numbers, and for many of us it is an uncomfortable topic to talk about.

The first step in prevention of child abuse is to educate ourselves. While every child and family are unique, there are common signs that can alert you of potential neglect or abuse. These include unexplainable injuries, reluctance to go home, lack of personal hygiene, changes in behavior, chronic hypervigilance, untreated medical needs and inappropriate or sexualized behavior. If you observe any of these signs, calmly allow the child to talk, support the child by listening without interrogating, and act. Call your state hotline or 911 for help.

Another way to prevent child abuse is to start a dialogue. It is important for us to have conversations about how to recognize the signs and raise concerns of abuse. We can start by removing the stigma of having these conversations with our own families. Conversations around the forms of abuse will allow for the signs to be recognized easier and will empower those affected to reach out for help.

When we do engage in these conversations, they can turn into a “blame game” on parents or even on the victims themselves. Rather than pass judgment, we must create an environment where people feel comfortable asking questions and seeking guidance. This can be done by framing a conversation around prevention, protection and help.

While education and dialogue are vitally important, at the nonprofit I work for, Buckner International, we believe the best preventive measure for child abuse is strong families. We can stand up for children by standing by their families and communities and equipping them with support, tools and the community needed to help them develop healthy relationships that ultimately prevent abuse.

That’s why we exist. Our programs aim to engage, equip and elevate families. We want them to break the cycle of abuse and neglect for future generations and help them transform into strong, successful and healthy families.

We do this through programs like the Buckner Family Hope Center®, Buckner Family Pathways® and Buckner FAYS.

Our Buckner Family Hope Centers® are in or near vulnerable communities and provide families with critical services, aid, and coaching to strengthen their mental health and relationships, which decreases the likelihood of abuse, neglect, and removal of children. Buckner Family Pathways® is a program that supports single-parent families in ways that help prevent domestic abuse, financial uncertainty and homelessness. The Buckner Family and Youth Success (FAYS) program is designed to help children and families decrease conflict by developing a plan to overcome issues that can often lead to abuse and neglect.

Christina, a client of a Buckner preservation program for single mothers, was a victim of abuse starting at the age of 4. After her parents’ divorce, instability became a regular part of Christina’s life. She bounced around until she learned she was pregnant with twins. Christina decided she wanted something better for her children, but that change started with her.

With Buckner’s help, Christina found the stability she needed to build a strong family to protect her children. She finished her degree and became an academic adviser at her college. She now helps other single mothers navigate college so they can also be strong for their children.

So how can you help as we move into National Foster Care Month, a time when we focus on children who may have been removed from their homes due to neglect or abuse? There are opportunities all year to invest in your community, to strengthen families, and to ensure the protection of children. It cannot be something we only think about in April and May.

You can start by getting involved with local organizations and volunteering your time, educating yourself and others about the signs of abuse, and reporting it. Most of all, show love and compassion. Be a listening ear, offer to help, or even deliver a simple home-cooked meal to a single parent or family who might need it. Invest in the well-being of your community because strong families mean strong communities. And if you see signs of possible child abuse or neglect, report it. You can do it online, call the Texas Abuse Hotline at 1-800-252-5400, or call 911 if it’s an emergency.

Samela Macon is the vice president of operations for Buckner Children and Family Services and has nearly 30 years of child welfare experience.