By Jabeen Yusuf
The allegations raised in the recent documentaries about Michael Jackson and singer R. Kelly made headlines this past month, but they were soon buried in a flood of news about the Mueller report and new political scandals. Then, just days ago, we learned of a sting operation in New Jersey that led to the arrest of 16 men, from teachers to police officers and ministers, who were caught attempting to solicit sex from minors. All of these stories point to one emerging theme: sexual abuse is a national epidemic.
A federal study, published in 2005, reported that at least one in four girls (and one in six boys) in the United States is sexually abused by the age of 18. Parents may envision nameless monsters, but as more and more of us are learning, the sad reality is that children are usually abused by someone they know and trust.
Despite its prevalence, child abuse as an epidemic is just making its way into the national discourse. We’ve long known the possible consequences of such trauma — shame, fear, self-blame, PTSD, depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse. Because sexual abuse can lead to health issues, it deserves a healthcare solution. Child abuse isn’t something we should publicize once in a while: It’s time to take action.
In childhood, sexual abuse is one of 10 adversities that studies have shown can result in toxic stress. Other such experiences include emotional or physical abuse, neglect or growing up in a home with a violent, incarcerated or mentally ill parent. The risks of toxic stress, still largely unknown to most of the public, are far-reaching. Without intervention or buffering from a caring adult, toxic stress can cause serious health problems starting in childhood, increasing the risk for seven of the ten leading causes of death in the United States.
As many as 34 million children are at risk of toxic stress nationwide. If we screened all kids for ACEs, early and often, we could dramatically improve the health of millions, save billions in health care dollars, and prevent endless cycles of abuse and trauma within generations of families.
The science is irrefutable. It is therefore imperative that we identify children at risk for toxic stress and get them screened through a simple, low-cost process. Armed with screening results, pediatricians can educate parents and give them greater guidance, support, and resources to protect their children and begin the healing process within their family.
The path to screening all children for childhood trauma is going to be long and winding but, as is so often the case, it starts in California. In 2017, former California Governor Jerry Brown signed a new bill into law, Assembly Bill 340, which created an advisory group to update and amend the EPSDT screening standards to include trauma screening for more than 5.7 million children on Medi-Cal.
Governor Gavin Newsom, built upon this momentum, proposing nearly $45 million in the state budget for ACEs screening and referrals for children and adults. These are the first statewide childhood trauma screening initiatives in the nation.
We need more states to follow California’s lead. There is no single preventive measure for sexual abuse or toxic stress. But if we educate more parents and providers about the warning signs and the risks of toxic stress, we can spark a national movement for universal ACEs screening and as a result, we will create a safer, healthier future for millions.
— Jabeen Yusuf is Vice-President of Strategic Engagements at the Center for Youth Wellness, whose mission is to build public awareness of the impact of childhood adversity and trauma, and director of its Stress Health initiative.