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Eliminating a 'Culture of Child Abuse'

Child abuse in Greene County has been a serious problem for years. And the most current data shows that it continues to become more prevalent. In 2009, Greene County had the highest number of child abuse and neglect cases among Missouri’s 114 counties. Experts say part of the problem is that some in southwest Missouri have a “culture” of child abuse. In this first of a two-part series, KSMU’s Matt Evans looks into exactly what that means.

Every day in Greene County more than 3,000 children are abused or neglected - that’s more than any other county in Missouri according to the “2009 Missouri Kids Count” report. Statistics like these have plagued Greene County for years, and experts say it’s getting worse.

“We saw an average of 62 children a month in 2006. This last year, 2009, we averaged 87 children a month.”

That’s Barbra Brown, the executive director of the Child Advocacy Center. Her office investigates cases of sexual and physical abuse in children.

Brown says it’s important to attribute some of this to consistent reporting in Greene County, but she also says the high numbers are partly due to drug abuse, poverty, and what she calls “a culture of child abuse.”

Dan Prater is with the Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children, or CASA in Southwest Missouri. He says the culture of child abuse is cyclical.

“If you grow up in a home where there’s violence and chaos and abuse, it becomes somewhat of a normal, almost expected behavior and [one] that you repeat.”

The theory is that children who grow up in abusive homes don’t know that abuse isn’t typical, and that they’re more likely to abuse their own children later in life.

For example, if a young boy wets the bed and his mother or father beats him and leaves marks as a form a punishment, the boy will think that is an appropriate punishment and will repeat it with his own children.

Experts say this cycle continues over the generations until the chain is disrupted. And Prater says that’s not an easy thing to do.

“As an example, if you grew up in a home where education was sneered at, and then you rise up and you say ‘I’m going to get a college education.’ You’re sneered at. [The attitude is] ‘What, we’re not good enough for you?’ So, to change a cultural attitude is very difficult and requires sacrifice.”

Most experts agree that while it’s very difficult to change perspectives, it is possible. Victor Vieth, the executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center visited Springfield in 2007. He challenged officials to eliminate child abuse within three generations, or 120 years.

As an example, he said to look at the culture of smoking: two generations ago, it was acceptable to smoke on airplanes, in ball parks, and restaurants. That, he said, has changed completely. So, too, can the culture of child abuse.

Denise Bredfelt, the executive director of the Mayor’s Commission on Children in Springfield, attended the week-long conference where Vieth spoke.

Bredfelt: “When I first heard that, I kind of laughed and thought ‘surely to God the United States of America is better than three generations to get rid of this problem,’ but after being in it for a couple of years, I believe it will take three generations to get it done.Evans: “Do you think it might even take longer?”Bredfelt: “It could, but I’d like to think we’d be good enough to beat it in three.”

Bredfelt says one of the many things that needs to be done to make the 120 year goal attainable is raising the awareness about the culture of child abuse in Greene County. She says if people aren’t aware, they won’t fix the problem.

Barbra Brown from the Child Advocacy Center says she agrees.

“One of the functions that those of us who work in this field serve is to disrupt that chain.”

But the question remains: what’s being done to eradicate this culture of child abuse? Join us tomorrow at the same time and we’ll take a look at what people in the community are doing to try to get rid of the culture of child abuse.

For KSMU News, I’m Matt Evans.