.jpg photo of therapy for Abused Children
Lutheran Services Florida at the Gulf Coast Kids House offers sand play therapy using miniatures that represent feelings in a sand tray

“Because the silence, it’s what takes on a life of its own. And it is the secret and the silence, and when you put light on that silence and that secret is the time that it becomes healthier, and people can emerge from that. ”

Nancy Hagman, Lutheran Services Florida

Without treatment, abuse can continue from generation to generation
By Kaycee Lagarde

Keith Ann Campbell knows firsthand how difficult it can be to break the cycle of abuse in a family.

When she tried to speak out, she was silenced.

She’s since dedicated her career to helping the voices of other children be heard.

“I was abused as a child, and I told my family about it, and they basically didn’t want to make any waves with the family,” said Campbell, the executive director of the Santa Rosa Kids’ House in Milton, a child advocacy center for abuse victims. “So they just didn’t tell anybody. And unfortunately, that happens a lot.”

For some children, an abusive environment is all they’ve ever known.
And if they’re never taught any differently, it may continue to be all they ever know, and all their children ever know.

So the sad cycle continues.

Research shows about one-third of abused and neglected children will grow up to abuse their own kids when they become parents, but experts stress the statistics don’t necessarily paint the whole picture.

Even if victims of abuse don’t end up doing the same to their children, the cycle can affect them in other ways.

“That’s not to say that they’re going to grow up and do the same things,” Campbell said. “But we call it stopping the cycle of abuse because chances are, they will grow up and something will happen, whether it’s them doing that to their kids or them causing their kids to go in a different direction and have it done somewhere else. It just seems that it runs in family lines.”

For the one in three victims who do end up abusing as adults, it can almost always be traced back to problems that were never addressed, pain that has been suppressed since childhood, say local experts.

It’s normal for victims and families to avoid talking about the abuse and go on as if it never happened, said Sherri Swann, clinical director for Lutheran Services Florida at the Gulf Coast Kid’s House, which can affect child abuse victims as they enter adulthood and have children of their own.

“People have triggers every day in their environment that set their behaviors in motion, and sometimes your behaviors that are reactive are not always the healthiest,” Swann said. “And so unless you take steps to do something different, you’re more than likely going to fall short.”

Malika Godwin, an infant mental health therapist at Lakeview Center in Pensacola who counsels families dealing with abuse and maladaptive behaviors, said parents often don’t realize their parenting is harmful, especially if it’s what they learned from their own parents.

Without perspective, they can unknowingly pass the same dysfunctional behaviors down to their children, Godwin said.

“And now you’ve got this little one who then grows up and doesn’t realize that that’s not a typical or a functional way to handle stressors, so now they carry it on to their family,” Godwin said. “And that’s how we see patterns continue within families, is when there’s no insight to the unhealthiness of that type of strategy or that intervention.”

In some cases, the cycle of abuse continues at the hands of others — not just by the ones who suffered the abuse — said Nancy Hagman, a program manager and therapist for Lutheran Services Florida’s sexual and physical abuse treatment program.

The victim may be less likely to catch clues to protect their children from others, Hagman said, especially if they’ve never addressed their own abuse and how it has affected them.

“Because you’ve been abused, you do not know how to stop the abuse from happening to your children and grandchildren,” Hagman said. “Unless you have been in treatment for your own victimization, and then your level of safety goes up — your awareness of the dynamics of abuse, your awareness of the incestuous cycle of abuse. And you become more aware of how to intervene and pick up on the clues that your child is at risk.”

While there’s no simple answer explaining why abuse continues to be present in families, there are factors that can play a role and increase the risk for abuse.

The most common risk factors include intergenerational patterns of abuse, substance abuse, immaturity and stress, especially in families struggling with poverty, unstable housing or unemployment, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a service of the Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

That’s not to say those factors are always present in abusive households, however.

“It spans all races, socioeconomic, education levels — pretty much across the board,” Swann said.

“The offender can be the most respected person in the community, and that adds to the continuous struggle for the victim,” Hagman said. “Because that person is seen as wonderful or great or perceived as the best in the world, and look at what all the wonderful things they’ve done. And so the challenge for the victim, then, is ‘But what I had happen is still true, no matter who else it is perceives whatever they perceive.'”

Poverty, substance abuse and maturity level aside, perhaps the true culprit that perpetuates abuse is silence, Hagman said. Family members don’t tell anyone, the child doesn’t tell anyone, and so it continues happening.

“Because the silence, it’s what takes on a life of its own,” Hagman said. “And it is the secret and the silence, and when you put light on that silence and that secret is the time that it becomes healthier, and people can emerge from that.”

Combating abuse, whether generational or not, comes back to awareness, education and treatment, say local experts — and the sooner, the better.

“If the child doesn’t get treatment, it’s going to mess with them for the rest of their lives,” Campbell said.

Shannon Massingale, who helps families and children as a case manager at Lakeview Center, agreed that intervening and getting victims the help they need is crucial to stopping the continued abuse.

“Parents who are aware of it, open to the fact to realize the situation wasn’t the safest or the healthiest, and try to put an effort into preventing that for their children are really taking steps to kind of break that cycle…,” she said. “If we can put those interventions in place, they can then have a healthy relationship with their caregiver, and go on to be successful and not have those reoccurring traumas in their life.”

Through counseling and an array of services for families, the Gulf Coast Kid’s House, Santa Rosa Kids’ House and Lakeview Center all provide and promote treatment — but that can only come after victims have the courage to speak.

And once a child does speak, it’s important to listen.

“One of the things that we’ve found that contributes to the success of a case is when a child discloses the abuse to their mom or to somebody, that person believes them, because that starts the cycle for getting their needs met,” Swann said. “They say, ‘OK, this terrible thing happened. Let’s go to the police, let’s go to the doctor, let’s go see a therapist’ and ‘I believe you.'”

PENSACOLA News Journal