Child abuse and neglect in Michigan is rising at an alarming rate.
That’s the finding of a new report from the Michigan League for Public Policy. The trauma that accompanies abuse and neglect threatens a child’s emotional state in many ways…including their ability to focus in school.
The Kids Count Data Book is an annual snapshot of the quality of life of Michigan’s two million children. The data covers the period from 2012 – the high water mark of childhood poverty in the wake of the Great Recession – to 2017.
On that front, the news is good. The number of kids in poverty is down 20 percent. But there’s bad news too. Since 2012, the number of children in families under investigation for abuse and neglect has risen by 20 percent.
Though economic security influences a child’s well-being, there’s no clear link between household wealth and domestic violence.
“Just because you live in poverty does not mean that you’re more likely to abuse and neglect your children compared to somebody who has more resources,” says Kids Count Project Director Alicia Guevara Warren with the Michigan League for Public Policy.”
Abuse and neglect are at the heart of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call “adverse childhood experiences.” ACE’s reach far beyond the home and often hinder a child’s success in school. Most educators have stories of students struggling under hidden burdens.
“I have a ton,” says Amy Webster, the principal of Pinecrest Elementary in East Lansing. Webster has 350 kids in her charge, from pre-school through fifth. Every morning, her teachers meet briefly with their students before delving into their lessons…a sort of daily temperature reading.
“Trying to get to know who the student is and what will work for them is really important. Building that trusting relationship between teacher and student is the start.”
The Pinecrest faculty is familiar with the concept of adverse childhood experiences. That’s because each teacher knows their own personal ACE score.
The ACE spectrum is comprised of 10 factors, ranging from sexual abuse to parental separation or divorce to mental illness. The more factors in your life, the higher your ACE score.
Some of the staff members had zero. Fourth grade teacher Heather Dufner scored a seven.
“I happened to be one of the ones with the higher number, but that's why I get these kids.”
Nichole Martin understands what traumatized children go through, too. She’s a member of the East Lansing school board. But she’s also a master trainer for the Michigan ACE Initiative, a program of the Michigan Association of Health Plans. Martin teaches various groups how to identify and deal with adverse childhood experiences.
Sometimes, Martin says, they’re part of a cycle.
“I think part of what you're seeing is what we call intergenerational ACES, which is this passing along from one generation to another generation. It doesn't affect you based on socioeconomics, but how you handle things, how you learn how to cope with stress, and then how are you teaching the people around you to cope and manage stress.”
Pinecrest Elementary takes a more positive approach to stress management. The school employs what it calls a “social curriculum.”
“We teach the kids about empathy,” Dufner says. “We teach the kids about how to deal with a frustrating situation, how to take those emotions and control them and be able to get through the situation positively being in control the whole time.”
It’s not hard for Dufner to show empathy herself. She remembers a favorite teacher years ago who bought her a dress for her very first school dance. That moment helped sustain her through her own childhood trauma.
Today, she sees a bit of herself in those younger faces.
“They remember the things that you talked about,” she notes. “They remember how much you cared about them and it matters for years and years to come.”
The reasons why Michigan is witnessing more cases of abuse and neglect are elusive. The Michigan League for Public Policy believes these issues can be mitigated through more state investment in economic and educational programs. State lawmakers are reviewing Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed 2020 budget, which includes modest increases for services such as foster care and parent mentoring.
Still, the league notes, child abuse and neglect prevention programs remain underfunded.