Childhood abuse isn’t something you ‘get over.’ It is an evil that we must acknowledge and confront if we aim to do anything about the unchecked violence in this country.
— Martin Teicher, MD, PhD, Scientific American
We as a society silence child experiences by not recognizing the seriousness of child abuse and neglect, and acting in ways that are irrational to human behavior and recovery. Worst of all, by not prioritizing their healing, we implicitly send the message that abused and neglected children are not worthy of belonging and love. This post explores how the child welfare system could be more empirical, child-centered, therapeutic, and trauma-informed.
Not all child abuse and neglect cases rise to the level of a traumatic experience. Leaving a 14-year-old home alone once for 10 minutes is very different from leaving a 2-year-old child alone regularly for hours. The latter is within a critical window of time in early development where a child’s early attachments to a small number of consistent caregivers is critical to emotional health and physical development. Many years of sexual molestation by a parent is not comparable to one instance of witnessing domestic violence. The former has a unique impact on children that can include lifelong psychological damage. Outcomes for each child may vary widely and are affected by a combination of factors. Because everyone’s experience is distinct, my intent is not to rank the severity of types of trauma, but to highlight that the facts and circumstances of each childhood experience matter.
What if science were the driving force behind abuse and neglect cases that centered on the recovery of each child? Every case could be a neutral, fact-driven, scientific evaluation of evidence that is informed by independent experts in psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience. This approach would ensure more consistent and unbiased methods of decision-making. The systems currently in place do not reflect this ideal. “[T]he amount of scientifically validated research on child abuse and neglect is vanishingly small.” The scientific data that is being used is often not based on current scientific knowledge and not accepted by the scientific community.
Most states are using risk assessment models that have not been carefully designed and are not empirically validated. This allows for prejudice to influence decision-making: the judgment becomes less about potential harm to children and more about imposing personal values over science. Risk assessment systems cannot replace a competently trained staff. Ideally, the models “‘require a staff that is trained and knowledgeable in human growth and development, parenting practices, the causes and effects of mistreatment, and family dynamics’—qualifications few caseworkers have.”
The need to belong is in our DNA. The worst part of trauma is its ability to shatter human connections. Because humans are a social species, the most effective treatment for abuse and neglect revolves around relationships. The default of removing children from their homes to foster care placements directly contradicts what we know contributes most to recovery and healing. Not only has the child survived the traumatic experience of abuse or neglect, but they must endure the further trauma of losing the only connections they have ever known. Expecting children to bond with complete strangers in the middle of a traumatic event is irrational to human behavior and healing.
If science were the driving force behind abuse and neglect cases, caseworkers would be trauma-informed social workers who could suggest both short-term and long-term recovery plans. Instead, “[l]ess than a third of caseworkers have had any actual social work training.” Caseworkers are also typically overwhelmed with huge caseloads and have infrequent contact with families. Parents are assigned long, sweeping agency requirements that lack in quality and wear them down until they ultimately give up. For many parents who are seeking mental health care for a child, the “choices” they are given are treatment for the child or retaining legal custody. The options provided to parents are not only unfair to traumatized children but are contrary to healing and recovery.
How can we increase the amount and quality of scientific data so that we can have a more neutral, fact-driven, consistent, and unbiased approach in abuse and neglect cases? We can start by talking about it. We as a society don’t want to talk about child abuse and neglect as they are historically forbidden social topics. Our silence does not make the problem disappear, but it manifests in the hearts, minds, and bodies of children who are forced to suffer in silence and hold the weight of their trauma alone. In the words of Bessel van der Kolk, “In order to understand trauma, we have to overcome our natural reluctance . . . and cultivate the courage to listen to the testimonies of survivors.” How many parents are struggling with their own unresolved childhood trauma without the support they need? Without focusing on the root of the issue, we are uninformed and unempowered.
Instead of working within an unworkable framework of protecting children or preserving families, we could forge a new path that revolves around the child. If the child welfare system could be more therapeutic and based on science, more families could trust the process and lean on agencies for help and support rather than operate from a place of mistrust and fear of being punished. My hope is that we send a new message to traumatized children—one that says their worth is defined, not by abuse and neglect, but by the intrinsic qualities of goodness, joy, and wonder that we all cherish.
* Second-year law student at CUNY School of Law. I write this piece from the perspective of a survivor and dedicate it to all survivors of childhood abuse and neglect, many of whom I am honored to deeply know and love. Thank you to CUNY law faculty, particularly Richard Storrow and Sofia Yakren, for their support and encouragement. And thank you to my key pillars of support: my mom, brother, close friends, and therapist.
 Bruce D. Perry & Maia Szalavitz, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook – What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing xxvi (2017) (“Roughly one-third of children who are abused will have some clear psychological problems as a result—and research continues to show how even purely “physical” problems like heart disease, obesity, and cancer can be more likely to affect traumatized children later in their lives.”); Dorothy Roberts, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare 202 (2002) (“Studies show maltreated children are more likely to be involved in juvenile delinquency. There is also evidence that children’s experience in the child welfare system affects their chances of arrest. A Justice Department Study, The Cycle of Violence . . . found that maltreatment increased the likelihood of arrest by 53 percent.”); See Child Welfare Information Gateway, Children’s Bureau, Long-Term Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect 1 (2019), https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/long_term_consequences.pdf (demonstrating that child abuse and neglect can have lifelong and intergenerational impacts that can be later linked to psychological, physical, behavioral consequences as well as costs to society as a whole).
 Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma 1–2 (2014) (“Trauma, by definition is unbearable and intolerable . . . It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability . . . Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often begin to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption.”); Danya Glaser, Child Abuse and Neglect and the Brain--A Review, 41 J. Of Child Psychol. & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines 97, 106 (2000) (“Much abuse and neglect, whilst stressful, is not perceived by the child as trauma, if only because of the very predictable and chronic nature of some forms of maltreatment.”); Megan Glynn Crane, Childhood Trauma's Lurking Presence in the Juvenile Interrogation Room and the Need for A Trauma-Informed Voluntariness Test for Juvenile Confessions, 62 S.D. L. Rev. 626 (2017) (“[M]any forms of interpersonal trauma (e.g. physical and sexual abuse and neglect) experienced by so many American children do not necessarily meet the criterion for a “traumatic event” set forth in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).”).
 Perry & Szalavitz, supra note 1, at 92–93 (explaining that when “children are not allowed the chance to develop permanent relationships with one or two primary caregivers during the first three years of life [this can] have lasting effects on [their] ability to relate normally and affectionately to each other. Children who don’t get consistent, physical affection or the chance to build loving bonds simply don't receive the patterned, repetitive stimulation necessary to properly build the systems in the brain that connect reward, pleasure, and human-to-human interactions.”).
 See Judith Herman et al., The Long-Term Effects of Incestuous Abuse in Childhood, 143 Am. J. Psychiatry 1293 (1986) (studying two groups of women with histories of incest and finding that most women who had experienced forceful, prolonged, or highly intrusive sexual abuse, or who had experienced abuse by a father or stepfather, reported long-lasting negative effects).
 Child Welfare Information Gateway, supra note 1, at 1 (factors include: the child’s age and developmental status when the maltreatment occurred; the type, frequency, duration, and severity of the maltreatment; and the relationship between the child and the perpetrator).
 Roberts, supra note 1, at 57 n.180.
 Roberts, supra note 1, at 127 (The psychological experts hired by the state to testify about parents’ inadequacies are “often scientifically questionable and at times irresponsible.”); Rebecca M. Thomas and James T. Richardson, Parental Alienation Syndrome: 30 Years On and Still Junk Science, American Bar Association (July 1, 2015), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/judicial/publications/judges_journal/2015/summer/parental_alienation_syndrome_30_years_on_and_still_junk_science/.
 Roberts, supra note 1, at 57 (“Caseworkers typically check off and weigh a list of family traits to tell the degree to which a child is likely to be abused or neglected at some point in the future.”).
 Roberts, supra note 1, at 56.
 Roberts, supra note 1, at 57 (“[E]mploying these new models without needed reforms actually made a bad situation worse: ‘In fact, use of inadequately designed or researched risk-assessment instruments may result in poorer decisions, because workers will rely on mechanical rules and procedures instead of trying to develop greater clinical expertise.’”).
 Roberts, supra note 1, at 57 n.181.
 Tara Brach, Remembering Our Belonging (Part 1) with Tara Brach, (Dec. 2, 2020), https://www.tarabrach.com/remembering-belonging-1/ (“Our well-being is linked to a sense of some way being held by our belonging to the larger benevolence in this world — that we fit in, that we are connected, all of us . . . as social species we are hardwired to want to belong . . . because not belonging meant death, so it’s in our DNA.”).
 See Perry & Szalavitz, supra note 1, at 259.
 Perry & Szalavitz, supra note 1, at 260 (“[R]ecovery from trauma and neglect is also all about relationships — rebuilding trust, regaining confidence, returning to a sense of security and reconnecting to love . . . What maltreated and traumatized children most need is a healthy community to buffer the pain, distress and loss caused by their earlier trauma. What works to heal them is anything that increases the number and quality of a child’s relationships. What helps is consistent, patient, repetitive, loving care.”).
 Roberts, supra note 1, at 106 (“Empirical studies show, for example, that children in foster care suffer psychological harm when they are cut off from their family and that they benefit from contact with their parents during placement.”); Roberts, supra note 1, at 239 (“When children are removed from their parents and placed in custody of the state, it disrupts their sense of security and self-determination . . . Children are often moved from one foster home to another. Many are drugged with psychiatric medications to keep them docile. They are stigmatized and made to feel inferior just by being involved in the system.”); Roberts, supra note 1, at 205 (“Studies show alarming correlations between aging out of foster care and dropping out of high school, unemployment and homelessness.”).
 Roberts, supra note 1, at 56 n.173.
 Roberts, supra note 1, at 56 (“Because burnout and staff turnover are high, many caseworkers are inexperienced. They are typically overwhelmed with too many cases and must often make snap judgments . . . At court hearings, it’s not unusual for caseworkers to sheepishly admit to the judge that they just took over the case and don’t know what’s going on.”).
 Roberts, supra note 1, at 135.
 Roberts, supra note 1, at 21 (“These so-called parenting services are typically parenting skills classes of varying quality. Many parents regard them more as a task they must complete to get their children back than any real assistance to their families.”); Roberts, supra note 1, at 68–69, 82.
 Roberts, supra note 1, at 87 n. 246.
 Van Der Kolk, supra note 2, at 11–12 (“We do not really want to know how many children are being molested and abused in our own society . . . We want to think of families as safe havens in a heartless world and of our own country as populated by enlightened, civilized people. We prefer to believe that cruelty occurs only in faraway places . . . Is it any wonder, then, that the traumatized individuals themselves cannot tolerate remembering it and that they often resort to using drugs, alcohol or self-mutilation to block out their unbearable knowledge?”).
 Van Der Kolk, supra note 2, at 196–97.