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Reclaiming our prodigal sons and daughters

Scott Larson and Larry Brendtro

In a typical year, approximately 3 million cases of suspected child abuse are reported in the United States. Also, each year, approximately 3 million juveniles encounter the police or justice system. Is it coincidental that these numbers are virtually identical? Not likely. According to the Child Welfare League of America, childhood abuse and neglect are the highest indicators of future delinquency.’

While child abuse is no excuse for delinquent behavior, we do know that youngsters who are abused often turn the tables and victimize society. Child abuse is the "smoking gun" behind much of youth violence. Studies have shown that abused and neglected youth are 66 times more likely to become early delinquents than other children. For boys alone, a record of abuse increases the likelihood of delinquency by over 100 times. In one study of juvenile murderers on death row, Dorothy Otnow Lewis found that all of her subjects had been abused and, in some cases, tortured by parents and stepparents.

Derrick was a boy in one of Straight Ahead’s aftercare homes. He had been abused by his father, and in turn had abused his younger siblings. Wracked with a sense of guilt and shame, Derrick would often say to us, "I’d feel more comfortable if you’d beat me rather than love me." Once he even said, "I want to commit a crime so bad that I will have to go to prison for a long time. Maybe that’s how I can pay for all the bad things I’ve done?’ Unfortunately, Derrick did just that. Only two weeks after leaving our home, he committed a crime that landed him in an adult prison for 10 years.

Phil Quinn, himself an abused child, has written several books on this topic and is a national advocate for abused youth. He contends that abuse poses a threat to the survival of a child, unlike any experience other than war or torture. Children are thrust prematurely into the adult world of power, violence, and sex where they are forced to find some way to survive. Children are born with a trusting spirit, which he calls "congenital hope’ but child abuse makes them feel powerless and vulnerable to death, leading to "congenital despair?’ They learn to expect the worst from others, but to blame themselves.

The healing process involves building trust with such a child, gradually helping the youngster learn that he or she is a person of great value and is not to blame for what has happened. These children often need counseling to reconcile their anger toward their abuser and even to forgive themselves so that they may feel secure enough to trust others again.

Larson, S. & Brendtro, L. (2000) Reclaiming our Prodigal Sons and Daughters. Indiana: National Educational Service Bloomington. pp. 94-95

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