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Kirby: Consider implications of emotional, psychological abuse during National Mental Health Awareness Month | COMMENTARY

Child abuse and neglect can cause victims to feel isolation, fear and distrust.

Many children who experience these circumstances are impacted by psychological consequences that often manifest as educational difficulties, low self-esteem, depression and trouble with relationships.

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Our staff and volunteers at Together We Own It are all too familiar with the implications of child abuse and neglect. The nonprofit works with children and families impacted by trauma through group mentoring and family advocacy programs.

When most people think of child abuse, they consider the physical acts of violence imparted on a young person. However, just as important to consider is the impact of emotional or psychological abuse.

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The Code of Maryland Regulations outlines the definition for “mental injury” that Child Protective Service agencies in Maryland follow when identifying the impact of child abuse or neglect on the psychological well-being of children involved in an investigation.

The Maryland Department of Human Resources associates mental injury with behaviors that may include “threats of death or serious injury to a child, extensive isolation, antagonistic behavior between parents, unnecessary medical treatment, or constant criticism of a child.”

CPS data reports from February 2018 to January 2019 depict a monthly average of 4,974 reports of child maltreatment across the state; an average of 182 reports a month came from Carroll County. Indicated findings for completed investigations during the same year totaled a monthly average of 485 cases for the state of Maryland; and an average of 13 a month from Carroll County.

The same report depicts a median average of zero cases indicated for mental injury.

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Because emotional abuse most commonly leads to an unobservable injury, research shows that it is more difficult to identify a consistent, objective, physical or psychological outcome, as a result — but that doesn’t mean no injury exists.

Much of the research reports that emotional abuse leads to higher scores for depression, anxiety and neuroticism when compared to physical or sexual abuse. Additionally, emotional abuse as a child, when directed from a parent or caregiver, leads to more severe mental health diagnoses when compared to alternative forms of maltreatment.

The implications for this form of maltreatment should matter to all of us in our community. With a clear correlation of exposure to adverse childhood experiences and increased mental illness and addiction into adulthood, the depths of consequence for emotional abuse is huge.

Without a clearer definition for mental injury and more deliberate protocols to investigate the psychological impact of emotional abuse by COMAR, children in Carroll County will continue to feel that they aren’t protected by a system that was designed with that very intention.

“I want to see us step up and stop pretending this isn’t happening. I want to see a world where for once, kids don’t feel that their situation isn’t “bad enough.” I want to see a city, county, state, country, and world where the people and systems that have the ability to help me, actually help me” (anonymous Carroll County high school student).

My team and I at TWOI will continue to build relationships with children and families across Carroll County. Parents are battling unresolved trauma of their own and our children are suffering the consequences of generational cycles.

Programming that supports keeping families intact, addressing trauma at its root and building positive relationships is essential to break the cycle of childhood abuse and neglect.

It was our priority during the month of April, Child Abuse Prevention Month, to shed light on this matter. As we move into the month of May, National Mental Health Awareness Month, we will continue to address these concerns and provide support for Carroll County families.

Katie Kirby is the executive director of Together We Own It. Reach her at at KatieKirby@TogetherWeOwnIt.org.

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