It is too early on a fresh summer morning for the young children to be on the playground so the swings stand empty, stirred only by a light breeze. Later of course, as the sun warms the cool air that circulates the music of the creek, the children will come. They will fill the empty swings with their presence and their laughter will echo through the trees. Throughout the long summer days, wave after wave of eager children will play a tug of war with a parent or caregiver as they plead for just one more turn!
What child does not like a soaring ride on a swing? And what adventure does their imagination not embrace as they reach, higher and higher for the sky? It is hard to think of a playground that does not have a swing and even harder to believe that they would ever be without a child.
But there are places where the swings forever stand empty and the vibrant laughter of children will never be heard. They stand empty, hundreds of thousands of them, because the children who should be there have been abused, neglected or murdered by those who were ordained to protect and nurture them. They stand empty because violence too often is the norm for solving problems and they stand empty because the resources necessary to help young families, whose coping skills are unable to manage the stress of a new baby, are not part of the political will. They stand empty for a host of reasons and their mute presence is a shame and a sore on the fabric of human existence that will not heal.
The numbers are mind boggling. In America, each year, 800,000 children are abused or neglected. A raging epidemic. Far too many swings left empty. Yet, these numbers, rather than ignite a mass response, are so overwhelming that paralysis and neglect of a different kind occurs. What develops in the life of the victims of abuse is not difficult to comprehend. Research now reveals that life is shorter, brain function altered and violence, substance abuse and criminal action much more prevalent than in those who did not experience abuse. It is easy then to see that the effects of abuse are not just limited to time a child is harmed but is a predictor of a life that will always be damaged. What should also be obvious is that the cost to society will be many times over the price that ought to be paid in developing programs that prevent the epidemic from developing in the first place.
It is known that many young mothers are at risk for being in abusive environments of their own that lead to the abuse and neglect of their children. Intensive community support initiatives such as nurse visitation for the first few months of a new baby’s life offers much help. Access to adequate health care and the recognition and treatment of events such as post partum depression are critical to the improved physical and psychological health of a new mother. Better training in understanding the factors that lead to abuse for social workers, law enforcement personnel, medical professionals and mental health experts is key to blunting the onward march of this sad epidemic.
Multiple causes lend themselves to a variety of solutions. Still, the most obvious is the need for everyone to take this epidemic seriously. When that becomes the case, most every swing will be full and the laughter of children will bounce back and forth with the rhythm of the wind that lifts them to new heights.