Child abuse plagues Arkansas more than most states. In fact, every 47 minutes, an Arkansas child is abused. Arkansas children experience around 10,000 substantiated cases of abuse yearly, and we know that many, many more cases are never reported. 

Protecting Children You Love from Child Abuse

Karen Farst, MD, MPH, a pediatrician board-certified in child abuse and the medical director of the Rice Medical Clinic at the Arkansas Children’s Clark Center for Safe & Healthy Children and assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) answered questions about protecting children from abuse.

How common is child abuse in Arkansas compared to other states?

From the campus at Arkansas Children's in Little Rock, we make about three new reports of neglect or abuse daily. When I think about what that looks like around the state, with all providers - clinics and ERs and schools and daycares -  it's a staggering number, but it's also a staggering issue.

Why exactly are Arkansas children more likely to experience abuse?

It depends on what type of maltreatment. When you look at physical abuse and neglect, we're often talking about the struggles families have with issues ranging from domestic violence to drug abuse. We see more of those dangers here, which increase a child's risk because they're co-mingled with children being injured or neglected.

From a sexual abuse standpoint, the risk factors for that are more vague. We see it more in homes with violence and drug abuse, but a lot of times in sexual abuse, we have a scenario where an offender is a predator with multiple victims. It's important to do a good job when those cases come forward before the list of victims gets longer and longer - a tough challenge.

How can families be part of the solution for child abuse in Arkansas?

Consider being a foster parent. Kids who aren't safe in their homes need a safe place to be while their family gets better. A large number of foster kids do reunite with their families. You can be a foster parent, or you can be part of an organization that helps provide respite for foster parents or mentors foster kids. Volunteering with Court Appointed Special Advocates (or CASA) is another way. They look at what's in the best interest of the child. You can make a huge difference by volunteering. There are also a growing number of children's advocacy centers or CAC's in communities around the state. They often have volunteer opportunities for prevention and program support.

What do parents need to know to prevent or intervene in situations involving their children?

Parents have to be involved. I tell parents, "Know who your kids are hanging out with." Even if it's a group you know is a very solid group, know who the leaders are in that group.

Of course, you don't want to make your kids afraid. I grew up playing team sports and my coaches were just wonderful; they were a huge influence in my life. We don't want families to be scared of the really great programs out there. But in our day and age, thinking about something like the USA Gymnastics situation - that's an incident where the team doctor used his position as being somebody that everybody should trust. That's one of the big things to be aware of as a parent.

You want to be alert about anyone who is carving children away one-on-one, creating a scenario where there's not other people around for accountability. Have your radar up: Be sure you don't see a situation where someone is peeling kids away from a group setting one-on-one.

Why is it so hard for children to disclose abuse?

An abuser often uses that position of authority and trust to make a child feel powerless. They'll tell the child, "Who will believe you?" They'll say, "If you tell, I'm going to make it your fault. I'm going to make it bad for your family."

That is the key - keep it from getting to that point. Prevent the situations that create opportunities for predators to connect with kids because once they are using that position, it's really difficult for a child to disclose. They're bringing attention to themselves over something they are embarrassed about, or they feel like they may be hurting their family. And as a child, they also believe, "People are more likely to trust an adult instead of me."

What else can parents do?

  • Have that conversation with your child. It is great to be involved in extracurricular activities, but be aware that someone does not have to look like a bad person to be someone who is using their position to take advantage of the child.
  • Make it the norm for your family that someone else is always present for sensitive exams including visits to the doctor's office. If your child is old enough, like a teen, to request you not be in the room during a medical exam, ensure a nurse or clinic staff member joins as a witness and promotes that safe environment for kids.
  • Figure out your kid's social media diet. It can be hard for parents these days to understand that social media is just a part of our kids' lives. It's how we communicate, it's how we know what's going on, you really must understand and use it. If you "get" it, you can have better conversations with your kids about what they do on social and talk about how you can keep your child safe by working together.
  • Make sure your kids understand there really isn't anything that is "safe" on social media. People might talk about how settings can be restricted. But you have to understand that's not true. There is nothing safe from others finding or seeing it on social media. Remind your kids they should never post anything on social media that they wouldn't post on a billboard driving down the Interstate. Don't send images or information to anyone you wouldn't want the whole world to know.

How might I know if a child I care about is being abused?

  • A child shows up with a physical injury that seems strange. Bruises that shouldn't be there. Those are the primary ways you clue into physical abuse.
  • When you talk about neglect or sexual abuse, you won't see that on the outside of the child. You're going to see more of the manifestation of the emotional trauma going on inside them. You'll see that as a change in behavior. You'll have a really outgoing, bright kid that all of a sudden seems closed off and doesn't speak in class. Or you have a child who is really well-behaved and respectful who starts lashing out and is defiant and oppositional.
  • Kids have a hard time putting words to feelings and saying, "I'm stressed out" so you see those changes in behavior instead. Those are the moments, where you as a parent have to say, "What's going on here? I love and care about you and want to make sure you're healthy and happy."

What should I do if a child discloses to me that they’re being abused?

The main thing that's important is to stay calm. The child may say some things you don't want to hear, that really break your heart. But it's important for the child to know that you can handle it, because it's taken a lot of courage for that child to come forward and disclose and say this.

Even though you may be going crazy inside, you should say, “Thank you for telling me, and I’m going to find the right people and resources to help you and keep you safe.” Then call the Child Abuse hotline at 1-800-482-5964.

You don't have to be a professional like a teacher or doctor to call the hotline.  However, the hotline does need to know how to find that child. You'll want to provide as much info as possible on where that child lives.

If it's vague and you're seeing all the change in behavior, but the child hasn't told you anything, it's fair game to sit down and say, "I'm just worried about you. I want you to know you can tell me anything and if you're not comfortable telling me, let's talk about some other adults that you can trust that you can share with." Try to really crack the door a little bit so they know you're there.

A lot of times kids aren't as comfortable telling their parents directly, so they'll tell a friend's parent or a coach. I see parents' hearts be broken by this all the time. It doesn't mean the child doesn't love or trust the parent, it just means this is such a tough emotional subject that they don't want to bring on all the emotions they know will come with the discussion.

What are some helpful resources for families?

  • The Mama Bear Effect- resources include great expertise and information for families on how to discuss body safety with your child in an age-appropriate manner.
  • The National Child Traumatic Stress Network - contains information for parents and professionals about the effects of trauma on children. The Resource section has great parent info on how to handle a disclosure from a child and how to help a child after a disclosure.
  • Arkansas Building Effective Services for Trauma - the website offers a helpful list of counseling resources in lists by city and county. It includes a list of clinicians who have been trained on evidence-based trauma therapies to help families going forward.
  • Children’s Advocacy Centers of Arkansas - offers a "find a CAC" link to look up the Child Advocacy Center that serves your community.

I can’t stress enough that if you have a suspicion to call the child abuse hotline. That’s really the first step in helping stop the cycle: 1-800-482-5964.