The murder trial in the death of Marissa Kennedy was extremely difficult to follow. The graphic testimony of the abuse suffered by this child is horrific to hear and a challenge to comprehend. Many of us may have turned away from the TV coverage or skipped through the newspaper accounts for understandable reasons. It is painful to imagine the torturous life Marissa endured. But it is essential that we don’t miss the critical message from this heartbreaking case: child abuse and neglect is much more prevalent than most believe. Marissa is not the rare case of abuse; child abuse happens frequently every day throughout our country and within every community.
I have worked with abused children and adults a great deal over the past 40 years as an educator, school counselor, therapist, supervisor and program director. I have seen many Marissas in these decades, but perhaps never more than the 14 years I was a therapist and clinical supervisor on child and adolescent inpatient units at a community hospital.
We treated young people who suffered incredible abuse and whose behavior consequently had become aggressive and violent. As mandated reporters, we often had to make referrals to the Department of Health and Human Services reporting the abuse discovered during our treatment. The abuse ran the gamut of physical, emotional and sexual. It was the exception that a child had not suffered at least one type of abuse. Sadly, many had endured all three.
A few years later, I conducted a qualitative research study with several hospitalized adolescents. My subjects, which were selected with a violence-only criterion, all had significant histories of trauma and abuse. Some like Marissa had been severely beaten by parents or guardians. Some had been so cruelly neglected that they had diminished physical and cognitive development. Others had endured years of sexual trauma. What was perhaps was most remarkable was the courage and the survival skills they learned to try to defend themselves, albeit often out of proportion to perceived threats due to an acquired hypervigilance from posttraumatic adaptations. I did not know Marissa but believe she must have been equally courageous.
Child abuse happens to thousands of children in this country every day. I know it’s hard to comprehend, but I urge you to try. Abuse is not only discovered by counselors and therapists but by teachers, medical staff, day care providers, law enforcement as well as neighbors and family members. Trauma prevalence is higher than most believe due to difficulties in assessment and secrecy among abusers and the abused. In a counter-intuitive twist, most children abused by parents still love them, accepting misplaced blame for their own abuse. We must break through this confusion, denial and secrecy to better protect those being abused.
Childhood abuse can have devastating effects on the abused person’s physical and mental health, particularly one’s self-concept. Several of my patients told me that they believed they must be utterly defective, for why else would their own parent regularly beat them? I now have adult clients who are struggling some 40 years after childhood abuse, seeking to replace negative core beliefs that tell them they are not deserving of happiness and self-worth.
It is important to remember child abuse victims grow to be adult trauma survivors. When a child has been abused, that person’s life has been dramatically altered, and they will desperately need acceptance, care and compassion.
We must become a trauma-informed society. We all must learn to recognize the signs of child abuse and work to identify, treat and prevent abuse from occurring whenever possible. We must not turn away when we see or suspect a child is being mistreated and report it. We must support efforts to fund programs that treat children who have endured trauma and abuse as well as the adult survivors they become.
We must not let Marissa’s death just become another statistic. Let us remember her as a precious life that was tragically cut short, which consequently awakened more of us to this stark reality and made prevention of child abuse the critical priority it deserves.
Dan Johnson lives on Mount Desert Island. He has worked as a counselor and educator for four decades.