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Violence on the Home Front

You're more likely to be killed by someone you know than by a stranger, and you'll probably be at home when it happens.

| Thu Apr. 25, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Child Protective Services may not have gotten a call about Deon, but it does respond to millions of reports of alleged abuse: 3.4 million in 2011. There were 681,000 unique victims that year. Seventy-nine percent of those kids suffered from neglect at home. Eighteen percent were physically abused, and 9 percent were sexually abused. Babies under age one were assaulted most often; 1,570 of those children died from abuse and neglect that year. Eighty-two percent of child victims in 2011 were younger than four.

While the rate of assault on children (as with women) has dropped over the past two decades, a recent Yale School of Medicine study found that serious child abuse—the kind that results in fractures, head injuries, burns, open wounds, or abdominal injuries—is actually up.

Being poor is a good way to increase your chances of being hurt by your parents. The same Yale study of severe abuse found that over the past 12 years, parental punching, thrashing, or burning of children has jumped by 15 percent for kids on Medicaid, the government health insurance program for families in poverty, but by 5 percent for the general population. Another recent Yale study suggested that child Medicaid recipients were six times more likely to be victims of abuse than those not on Medicaid.

Kids in violent homes have sleeping, eating, and attention problems. They are generally more withdrawn, anxious, and depressed than children with parents who don't abuse them. A 2012 Harvard study of the brain scans of 200 people found that childhood abuse can be associated with damage to the brain's hippocampus, which plays a major role in short- and long-term memory. Such kids are also more vulnerable to chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes, leading some to call child abuse the tobacco industry of mental health. One National Institute of Justice study of 1,500 kids found that abused children were also more likely to become violent criminals.

Child abuse first received national attention in 1874, due to the case of Mary Ellen McCormack, a 10-year-old orphan in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen who was abused by an adoptive mother. No laws then existed to keep parents from beating their children, so the case was brought to court by, yes, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "I have now on my head two black-and-blue marks which were made by Mamma with the whip," McCormack testified, "and a cut on the left side of my forehead which was made by a pair of scissors in Mamma's hand; she struck me with the scissors and cut me."

The McCormack case spurred a reformers' crusade. In 1912, the US Children's Bureau was created to research and publicize the issue of violence against children. After World War II, more research led to the system of child abuse reporting we have now, in which various professionals—doctors, teachers, day care workers—are required to report suspicions of abuse. Child Protective Services does screenings and investigations and has the power to remove a child from a home, if necessary.

Deon didn't have his day in court, but even if he had, research shows that, again and again, courts return abused children to parents with a history of violence. A 2005 study by the New England Research Institutes found that, even in states with laws that tilt against custody for an abusive parent, 40 percent of adjudicated wife-beaters got joint custody of children. The American Judges Association says that about 70 percent of wife-abusers are able to convince a court that the mother is unfit for sole custody. Nationwide, some 58,000 children a year are put back into the unsupervised care of alleged abusers after a divorce.

Deon left his mother's apartment in Brooklyn at 18 and moved in with a coworker in Harlem. He visits his mother maybe once a year. Her place is windowless, wall-to-wall carpeted, and tight with too much furniture. He and his mother don't ever talk about what happened with the homework and the knife and the wall. When he stops by, he'll hover in her apartment for 20 minutes or so. And then he has to leave.


Mark was 25, handsome, rich, and smart. He had a trust fund and spent $10,000 of it a month. He was really popular—there must have been 400 people at his funeral.

When Mark was a kid, his father once made him cry for not finishing a sandwich in a restaurant. He also showed him just how to treat his mother and younger brother, so that Mark would grow up to be a good bully, too. When he graduated from college, his dad insisted that he also go to law school. But he couldn't get in.

Mark started binge drinking at age 13. He had a history of getting into trouble (at school, with the law), but his dad was usually able to get him out of it—until the bar fight that landed a guy in the hospital. A couple of weeks after that, Mark was drunk at his apartment and fighting with his girlfriend. His dad had given him a .38 revolver because he thought the upscale neighborhood Mark lived in was dangerous. He pulled out the gun and shot himself. In his eulogy, his dad told the congregation that Mark was trying to live up to him and couldn't do it.

Of the approximately 55,000 people each year who die a violent death in the United States, most—like Mark—take their own lives: about 38,000 annually. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of American death, behind cancer and heart attacks but ahead of car accidents. There is a suicide every 13.7 minutes. And 77 percent of the time, as in Mark's case, it happens at home. In 2010, the highest suicide rate was among 45- to 64-year-olds. Men kill themselves four times more often than women, whites more often than other races.

There are known contributors. Ninety percent of those who kill themselves have mental disorders. Many have physical pain. Being unemployed is associated with as much as a three-fold increased risk of death by suicide. Having a means of suicide in the home, like a gun, also makes it more likely to happen. In that sense, Mark killed himself in the most common way.

Often enough, suicides fail. Nearly 1 million people attempt suicide every year. In 2010, 464,995 people visited a hospital for injuries due to suicidal behavior. Even though men succeed in killing themselves more often, women attempt suicide three times as often as men. According to researchers, that's because a woman is more likely to use the act as a cry for help, rather than to end her life.

Suicide is not a pretty thing to talk about. That's one reason why federal policy on suicide prevention is still in its infancy. A movement organized by the families and friends of victims began to build throughout the 1990s, however, and eventually got the attention of Surgeon General David Satcher. In 2001, he laid out the first national strategy for suicide prevention. But 12 years later, advocates say federal funding for suicide prevention and research is still insufficient.

Oddly enough, since the federal government instituted its response, suicide rates have been climbing. The national suicide rate had been on the decline for decades: Between 1990 and 2000, it dropped from 12.5 to 10.4 deaths per 100,000. In the next decade, it started to rise again and stood at 12.1 per 100,000 in 2010.

Suicide is up. Severe child abuse is on the rise. Domestic violence is still the No. 1 injurer of women. The classic notion of the home as a refuge, not an abattoir, seems more and more like a joke.

Feel free to cut through that dark alley on your way home. Or maybe just don't go home.

Note to readers: The names of the three victims portrayed in this piece have been changed.

Erika Eichelberger is a reporting fellow at Mother Jones, where she writes regularly for the website. She is also director of social media for TomDispatch. She has written for The Nation, the Brooklyn Rail, and Alternet.

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