UC Davis Children's Hospital CAARE Center cautions economy, holiday stress can lead to abuse
Experts offer tips to avoid holiday stress, keep kids safe
For many families this year there is an unwelcome gift in their holiday stocking — the lump of coal that is the recession, joblessness, home foreclosures and the looming fear that the economy will get worse before it gets better.
So it is with increased urgency that representatives of the UC Davis Children's Hospital CAARE (Child and Adolescent Abuse Resources and Evaluation) Center caution that the stresses of difficult financial times combined with the pressures of the holiday season can lead to child abuse or neglect.
Financial stresses, relationship difficulties, substance-abuse issues and mental-health problems like depression can combine to create a volatile cocktail that heightens the danger that vulnerable family members, especially children, may become victims of family violence.
"We are seeing an increase in the stress and distress on fundamental things that affect children and families and their basic sense of security throughout the community," said Anthony J. Urquiza, director of mental-health services for the CAARE Center. "Ultimately, one of the outcomes is that there are going to be more issues of neglect that are going to happen to kids. I'm not usually one of the people to sound an alarm but we're already seeing it," Urquiza said.
One of the CAARE Center's roles is providing medical and psychological services, through contracts with the region's county child protective services agencies, for children who become ill or injured as a result of parental abuse or neglect through. Urquiza said that in September and October the number of children detained from child protective services doubled over the previous year.
"In September more children went into foster care than just about any other time in this county and the second-highest was October. And it's getting worse really fast," he said.
"In September more children went into foster care than just about any other time in this county and the second-highest was October. And it's getting worse really fast."
—Anthony J. Urquiza, director of mental-health services for CAARE Center
In September of 2007 the number of children who went through detention hearings was 123; in September of 2008 it jumped to 294 — a 139 percent increase, according to Dawn Blacker, CAARE Center assistant director of mental-health services.
Urquiza and his colleagues said that, of course, there is no single prescription for how to prevent child abuse and neglect. But a first step is parents' recognition that they are experiencing stress, according to Michele Ornelas Knight, assistant director of mental-health services for the CAARE Center.
"Parents should recognize when the holidays and the status of the economy are contributing to feelings of stress. I don't think that people are going to be able to quickly acknowledge, 'I'm going to hurt my child so therefore I'm going to get help,'" Knight said. "But they may be able to recognize that, 'Wow, I'm really stressed right now. I'm worried about feeding my child. I'm more reactive than usual. I don't have that much patience. I'm not getting enough sleep. I'm worried about paying the next bill.' These are the signs of stress."
Once parents become aware that they're feeling stressed, the next step is reaching out to avoid the isolation that helps create an environment where abuse and neglect can occur, Knight said.
"What we want people to do is connect with others. We want them to connect with their extended family. We want them to connect with the schools, with the teachers, school nurses, school counselors and others who are readily accessible in the environment. We don't want them to be in isolation because that increases the risk of abuse and neglect. We want them to connect and engage in healthy coping strategies by seeking support and get the help they need," she said.
"Some people might perceive isolation as not an important issue. But it is an important issue for a person's own mental health, just to have the sense that they are not alone. Things are often not as scary once you've talked about them. And talking about things provides you with some questions that you can go seek some resources for, whether it's formal or informal support systems," he said.
Being connected to others also helps prevent child abuse because others may be able to better gauge the extent to which family issues may be spiraling out of control.
"Of course, if the parent is at the point where they find that they're leaving the child alone more hours of the day because they're afraid that they're going to hit their child or overreact, that is something that definitely needs to be followed up on. But the more people they tell, the more people they communicate with, the greater the likelihood that someone out there is going to refer them to resources," Knight said.
The CAARE Center of UC Davis Children's Hospital
The CAARE Center provides medical and psychological services to children who become ill or injured as a result of parental abuse or neglect.
The center's infant mental health program supports a strong and nurturing relationship between babies and toddlers and their primary caregivers.
For information, visit www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/caare
Resources can include anything from food banks and shelters to mental-health services for children and their parents. And, while the downturn in the economy is stretching community resources, as well, there are options. Schools can refer children to either school district- or county-sponsored mental-health services and in some instances may refer parents to mental-health resources, as well. The parents of children who receive MediCal are eligible for state-sponsored mental health counseling. And both children who are enrolled in the California Healthy Families program and their parents are eligible to receive counseling services.
Community resources that parents can turn to in times of crisis include:
- The Sacramento Crisis Nurseries: This agency provides resources and referral, including short-term child care in times of crisis. The Sacramento Crisis Nurseries focus on young children, ages 0 to 5, because they are believed to be at greatest risk for abuse and neglect. The nurseries are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Phone: (916) 679-3600
- The 24-hour Parent Support Hotline: This hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is sponsored by the 'The Effort,' which focuses on overcoming threats to families by providing child and family therapy, crisis intervention, child abuse prevention, domestic violence prevention and other health and social services. Phone: (888) 281-3000.
- Birth and Beyond: Birth and Beyond provides free support services to Sacramento County families at eight resource centers. Available services include parenting classes, substance abuse resources, mental health resources and family activities.