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Parents on the Edge, Children in Danger

The most recent statistics on child abuse show that an estimated 826,000 children are victims of abuse nationally. Approximately 1,100 of those were fatalities—about three children a day killed by those who should love them unconditionally. And while the number of children abused has slightly decreased over the past six years, the rate of abuse in this country is still staggering. These most recent statistics—for the year 1999—were released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) last April as part of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month.

The question of why parents injure or kill their children is one that we may never answer. Studies indicate, however, that factors such as past history of abuse, mental illness (permanent or temporary) or isolation (real or perceived) from friends and neighbors are some triggers that can lead to abuse.

And while there are certain variables which can indicate a higher likelihood of abuse, the HHS’s Administration for Children and Families points out, “Maltreated children are found in all income, racial and ethnic groups, and incidence rates are similar in urban, suburban and rural communities.”

Putting Names and Faces to the Problem

Behind each of the statistics is a name, a face, a story of a parent and child. Two months ago in Houston, Texas, Andrea Pia Yates called the police to her home, where she told them she had killed her five children. All of the children—Mary, Luke, Paul, John and Noah—were apparently drowned.

Yates’s husband, Russell, said his wife has been on medicine for postpartum depression.

Seven years prior to this incident, the nation was shocked by the tale of two young boys in Union, South Carolina, whose mother said they were abducted in a carjacking. On national television, Susan Smith and her estranged husband, David, pleaded for the safe return of their two sons—Michael (three) and Alex (14 months). It was soon discovered, however, that Susan Smith had driven her car to a boat ramp at John D. Long Lake and rolled it into the water with Michael and Alex still strapped in their car seats.

In Support of Families

Pope John Paul II and the U.S. bishops have continually emphasized the importance of caring for children and supporting parents.

In his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, the pope urged members of the Church to assist families in their responsibilities. “Loving the family means identifying the dangers and the evils that menace it, in order to overcome them. Loving the family means endeavoring to create for it an environment favorable for its development” (#182).

In their 1988 document A Family Perspective in Church and Society, the U.S. bishops reiterated the role of the Church community in supporting families. “The Church is encouraged to support positive developments, to look for new ways to help families and to unearth resources that enable families to move from crisis to growth, from areas of stress to strength.”

A Helping Hand

As part of the Church community, we are called, as the bishops say, to “help look for new ways to help families.”

One program that offers women with children a helping hand is Elizabeth Ministry, a name inspired by Mary’s assistance to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. The program was founded in Appleton, Wisconsin, by Jeannie Hannemann to “affirm, support, encourage and assist women in response to their needs during the childbearing years.”

According to the Los Angeles Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women,, the support during childbearing years that was once found in the family, neighborhood and parish community no longer exists. “Neighborhoods are fragmented, leaving many families isolated. Churches have increased in size, making it very difficult to create a hospitable and loving environment. Today’s mobility has caused many extended families to be separated by miles, making frequent visits impossible.”

Elizabeth Ministry is just one way we, as a community of faith, can help families and struggling parents. Below are some other suggestions for ways to help parents:

  • Be present. Let parents with a young child or children know you are there if they need anything—including time for themselves.

  • Offer reassurance. Let parents know that it’s O.K. to feel overwhelmed—most parents do at some point. But make it clear that when they feel that way they should ask for help.

  • Establish an Elizabeth Ministry program within your parish. For information, contact the International Elizabeth Ministry Headquarters at 107 Idlewild St., Kaukauna, Wisconsin, phone (920) 766-9380, or by e-mail at

  • Get help. If you or someone you know is struggling with parental responsibilities, check with your parish, diocese or local human services department about parenting classes.

  • Report it. If you suspect that a child is being abused or is in danger, let someone in authority know.

    Each of us has a role in stopping the violence of child abuse. As Pope John Paul II said in his October 2000 address to the Third World Meeting With Families, “The situation of children is really a challenge for society as a whole.” The time has come to meet that challenge before another child is hurt or killed.—S.H.B.

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