SUGAR GROVE – When children are traumatized by physical or sexual abuse, by violence, the death or illness of a parent – it can affect them throughout their lives.
So said Dr. Eric Nolan, a psychiatrist in St. Charles who is also affiliated with Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva. Nolan was one of a dozen specialists who spoke at an all-day conference Friday called Protecting Our Children: Working Together to Recognize and Prevent Child Maltreatment.
About 100 people involved with health care, teaching, social work, lawyers and law enforcement attended the symposium at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove. Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital, in partnership with the Kane County Health Department and the All Our Kids Early Childhood Network co-sponsored the event.
“Sexual, physical abuse and neglect is disheartening, it is horrible and has lifelong implications for how these kids will engage with everyone and everything that they come into contact with,” Nolan said.
When children do not feel physical and emotional safety in their primary relationships, it tells them who they are and what their value is, Nolan said.
“How often do we see generational trauma in physical and sexual abuse in particular? We have traumatized parents and grandparents and the cycle – no matter how hard we try to break it – feels unstoppable,” Nolan said. “How do we recognize that children are not broken? There are ways to put them back together using community resources.”
Children can exhibit various behaviors that professionals and parents should pay attention to, Nolan said.
In younger children, it can be exhibiting an inability to play; in older children it can be an abrupt change in behavior from being chatty to withdrawn, he said.
“When you see an abrupt change in function, please inquire about that,” Nolan said. “‘Oh, they’re nine. Oh they’re a preteen’ – no that’s not true. … We have got to inquire and trauma has to be at the top of the list.”
Traumatized children are 15 times more likely to attempt suicide, Nolan said.
“That is an insane number,” Nolan said “Please, please, please – this is not just about having their life being disrupted, it might be about their life ending.”
Assistant Kane County State’s Attorney Lori Schmidt, who is also assistant director of the Kane County Child Advocacy Center, spoke about bringing charges of abuse or neglect.
She said when a child is being treated by a nurse or other medical professional, and the child tells of physical or sexual abuse as part of the treatment history for that child – it can be admitted at trial as exceptions to what are called hearsay rules.
Hearsay is secondhand information that a witness learned about from someone else, as opposed to the original witness providing the information. In Illinois, Schmidt said, there are exceptions to hearsay rules when it involves children and abuse.
“You can testify at trial as to what the child told you. It helps in situations when you have a child who comes in to testify at trial and maybe they’re not able to tell us everything that happened – it’s just too much for them,” Schmidt said.
“When you are taking those histories down from the child, it’s best to try to use the words the child is using,” Schmidt said. “It’s important to write down exactly what the child told you.”
Another factor in prosecuting child abuse or neglect is calling everyone in the “chain of disclosure,” Schmidt said.
A child may disclose – that is, tell – a classmate about abuse. Then that classmate tells a teacher, the teacher tells the social worker, the social worker tells a school resource officer, and so on, she said.
Even a brief disclosure means that person is now a witness, Schmidt said.
“When you testify in court, as a professional, keep it simple,” Schmidt said. “Don’t use technical words that a jury wouldn’t understand. Keep it basic.”
Lael Sims, an emergency room technician at Delnor, said the symposium showed him how to be more open minded and think about more possibilities.
“Being in the emergency room, sometimes we only see one direction,” Sims said. “Instead of being reactive, we need to be proactive. ... In the ER, we have to think about what could have gone wrong that led to this point and how we move forward.”