By Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo
In gatherings with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) colleagues in Africa, I often inquire about their children. With beaming pride, they mention their biological kids and other children they raised as their own. The latter may be orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, the Rwanda genocide, civil wars and other calamities. Sometimes they are blood relations, sometimes an orphan in the village. I am always touched by the love and generosity which have opened up homes, arms and hearts for the least and littlest among us.
While at CRS we do extensive work to reverse the root causes and effects of poverty, much less tractable are the traumas that children experience around the world due to war, abuse, displacement from home into hostile environments, loss of parents and siblings, brutal maiming and many other trauma. A 2009 estimate puts the number of children living in conflict areas at 1 billion (childinfo.org), while a 2006 UN report projected 500 million to 1.5 billion children affected by violence each year. In addition to physical suffering, about 50 million children in conflict areas are out of school and thus held back from preparation for the future even when conflicts come to an end. The civil war in Syria alone has affected 5.5 million children.
Even in stable societies, the abuse of children takes place at astounding rates. In the US, based on a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, government agencies log over 3 million child maltreatment cases each year with about a quarter of that number treated in emergency rooms of hospitals. What are termed Adverse Childhood Experiences – or ACE — from neglect, abandonment, emotional and sexual abuse, parental drug addiction, incarceration of at least one parent define the daily existence for approximate 35 million children or one third of those between ages 12-17 in the US (2013 National Survey of Children’s Health).
After decades of research, we now know that childhood traumas can severely compromise the child’s long-term development on many dimensions: emotional, physical, intellectual, social. Early years are critical as by age 3 a child will have achieved development of 90% of the adult brain. In a comprehensive and lay-reader-friendly article, Frank W. Putnam (The Impact of Trauma on Child Development, Juvenile and Family Court Journal, Winter 2006) notes that,
“Experiences of abuse and neglect act to increase levels of cortisol in maltreated children… Increased cortisol levels, which may be lifesaving in an emergency, are nonetheless toxic to neurons in certain regions of the brain….The loss of these neurons and their connections contributes to the psychosocial problems with emotional regulation, impulse control, logical thinking, and social behavior seen in maltreated children.”
The damage starts early and extends its grip into adulthood. A large-scale study of 18,000 participants documents the positive correlation between frequency of ACEs and substance abuse, depression, promiscuity, poor job performance, and chronic diseases, leading the authors (Dr. Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda, The ACE Study) to conclude that “Adverse Childhood Experiences determine the likelihood of the ten most common causes of death in the US.”
In The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller reminds us that,
“The truth about childhood is stored up in our bodies and lives in the depths of our souls. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings can be numbed and manipulated, our perceptions shamed and confused, our bodies tricked with medication, but our soul never forgets. And because we are one, one whole soul in one body, someday our body will present its bill.”
When their own parents or society fail them, who will step up for these children? Who should? Whose children are they?
Matthew 18:5: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo is the president & CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. This article is part of her ongoing monthly column, Our Global Family, written for Catholic News Service.