Paula spent the first day in her adoptive home running from room to room, opening every door in the house even closet doors and cabinet doors. The 6-year-old, so small she looked about 3, ignored her adoptive parents, who watched helplessly, completely stunned and confused.
Paula was brain damaged and autistic, the result of repeated beatings by first her natural parents, and later three of six sets of foster parents. In her short life she had suffered a skull fracture, a broken arm, seven broken ribs, had 28 cigarette burns and weighed 18 pounds, a victim of chronic starvation, according to James Mead, who with his wife adopted Paula 20 years ago.The crime for which she suffered such hideous beatings? She didn't take to toilet training fast enough or well enough. But eventually the abusive message sank in: Her door-flinging run through that house, and every unfamiliar house since, has been a desperate move to locate the bathroom.
"When you talk about child abuse, you'd better talk about toilet training," Mead said. "It's an issue that will kill 500 children this year and leave thousands brain-damaged.
Mead is a former police officer and the founder and president of For Kids' Sake Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention of child abuse through education. The Californian was in Salt Lake City to address the ninth annual Conference of Agencies and Organizations Serving Troubled Youth Tuesday and Wednesday.
Parenting, he said, can be frustrating, and people who do not learn to deal with their negative emotions take them out on the children. "In my 20 years of dealing with child abuse, not one week has passed when I haven't come in contact with a parent who picked up a kid by the arm or leg and slapped his head into the wall to stop him from crying," he said.
Besides fractures, bruises and internal injuries, child abuse can cause cataracts and severe emotional problems. "Children modify their behavior to keep from being hurt. They may withdraw not only speech, but all sounds."
Mead said one of the most important ways to deal with child abuse is to recognize its prevalence. "If you have people, you have abuse. In almost any group," he said, "about one-third were abused in childhood. And about one-third of the kids in your community will be abused or molested by the time they get to high school. We need to get through the denial and accept that it happens in our society. If we can understand and accept that fact, we can prevent it.
"Prevention is everybody's business. And the majority of all abuse is preventable."
When Mead started investigating child abuse, he said many of the victims had "fat lips" and face bruises. In the past five to seven years, though, abusers have begun to injure children in ways that are more difficult to detect, particularly by hitting them in the stomach. The result is frequently internal injuries, but abusers find they can "vent the same anger without leaving visible marks." As a result, he said, fatalities are increasing dramatically.
More than 85 percent of all parents not just abusive parents admit they have shaken their children at some point. Unfortunately, that practice can seriously injure or kill a child.
During a recent child molestation court case in California, Mead said, the parents of seven of the 13 victims of the molester testified "in his behalf. They said they didn't believe their own children." There was enough evidence to get a conviction, but Mead called such denial the greatest barrier to prevention of all child abuse.
Part of the denial, according to Mead, occurs because molesters and abusers don't fit an expected profile. Of 2,500 cases he personally investigated, "one fit the mold.
"Not only do nice guys do it, that's who they are most of the time. The vast majority of molesters are people who are kind, gentle, charismatic, nurturing and genuinely love the children in a very wrong way, but they genuinely love them."