I recently toured a domestic violence shelter. The facility is a secure site, and visitors are required to sign confidentiality agreements, pledging not to reveal the location or anything about the victims of domestic violence who stay there.
Estimates vary, but one national study found that 50 percent of homeless women and children are fleeing abuse. Some say that about 80 percent of homeless children have witnessed or been the objects of some form of abuse. While such horrors are not confined to those in the lowest socio-economic classes, poor children do have a greater likelihood of being abused, sexually or otherwise.
Statistics also reveal that the abused often grow up to be abusers. That seems a puzzle, except when we realize that as children we learn how to treat others according to how the adults in our lives treat us and those around us.
I live in a stable middle-class home, in which no one abuses or is abused. So what does all this about abused or even neglected children have to do with you and me?
If we have children living with us, it reminds us that our children will likely treat future spouses, children, friends and colleagues as we treat them and others in our homes. If we want to pass on tolerance, emotional control and compassion, then we must demonstrate those qualities, especially in our families.
But, as much as our first responsibility is to our own children, those of us who are not financially impoverished have an obligation to reach outside our own comfortable dwellings and care for less fortunate children. Yes, time, money and our other resources are limited. Some days, very limited! And I don’t want to shortchange my own two children in any of those categories.
But should I simply spend all my free time at their sports tournaments, or sock away money for their college education, or buy them all the latest fashions or gadgets? Or might I take a small fraction of my time, money and goods and offer them to children who have little—if any—of those precious commodities?
Perhaps the most important on this list is time—particularly the time and attention of a responsible, caring, safe grown-up, which some poor children have known little of. Even if they do live with a loving adult who has reasonably good parenting skills, they probably don’t enjoy the adult support network that those from more stable home environments experience. The network might include an involved parent or two, helpful extended family, supportive neighbors, and social contacts such as those found in religious communities.
In contrast to the children with whom I work—who find themselves without a home—my children have been protected thus far in their lives. They have not known the disadvantages of many homeless or economically deprived children. Instead they have been blessed with caring teachers, coaches, pastors—people like you.
Yes, abused children need professional counseling to constructively deal with their pain. But they also need a trustworthy grown-up friend.
Could you give an hour a week to read with or tutor such a child in a classroom in your community? Could you become a Big Brother or Sister to a child who needs someone like you in his or her life? Could your church begin a mentoring program for at-risk youth, organizing volunteers, offering a place where kids and adults could meet—for doing homework, playing games, watching movies, becoming friends?
If we don’t invest ourselves in abused kids, we will—as a society—reap the consequences of lives that have been severely damaged and that may not have the opportunity to recover, but may instead be doomed to abuse another generation.
That choice, at least in part, is up to us.
Karen Johnson Zurheide is executive director of Positive Tomorrows, a center providing support services for children and youth facing family life challenges.