Recognizing the Signs

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A simple dress occupying a single hanger in the Salvation Army’s Children Shelter may look fairly straightforward. Size 5T, navy blue, meant to go over top a t-shirt, perfect for a six-year old headed to elementary school.

But what you may see as a piece of clothing, can unlock a big clue about a child who has just arrived at The Shelter.

“We let the kids choose their own clothes,” says Erin Eaton the Shelter’s director, “And when a 13-year old chooses this kind of outfit… we know that’s the age she was when she started experiencing her trauma.”

And thus begins a 30-day residency for the children who come to The Salvation Army Children’s Shelter. One month of their own bed, their own clothes, their own food. All with one major goal in mind.

“Letting them know they’re safe,” Eaton says, “Having a safe space to sleep. Having food on the table. Not wondering how I’m getting to school? How am I going to take a bath?”

Answering questions, no six-year old, let alone a 17-year old should have to answer for themselves or their siblings.

The Salvation Army Shelter takes children from all over the state of Missouri. While most are local to the Kansas City area, some have come from as far away as St. Louis. More than 9,200 residents total; 8,400 a unique name, birthdate, and story. All with one thing in common.

“All of them have experienced some sort of trauma, 100%,” Eaton stares down the number with ferocity, because she has seen that trauma on a daily basis.

“That doesn’t mean all of them have been sexually abused or physically abused, but all of them experienced some sort of traumatic, abusive situation.”

Bouncing from house to house that never really feels like a home; falling in with gangs; forced to grow up too quickly to care for siblings and parents, Eaton has seen hundreds of different stories in her four years The Children’s Shelter.

“The acuity of our kids we see is getting harder and getting worse. The trauma these kids are seeing is worse, the way they’re handling it is worse.”

April is Child Abuse Awareness Month, and with the symptoms growing, Eaton provides tips for what anyone can look for when it comes to recognizing a child dealing with a traumatic experience.

“Trauma manifests with kids itself in different ways, but if there’s a sudden change that can’t be attributed to anything else, then that’s a fairly clear indicator of trauma.”

Consider a headache causing morning grumpiness for you. Eaton says she’s fallen victim to the same issue, but, “If I came in and was grumpy for three days in a row, my staff would be doing an intervention because that’s just not me.”

So, if there’s child you know or are concerned about, look for those mood changes that are out-of-character over several days. Other signs include:

  • Increasingly watchful, anxious, or agitated
  • Sudden, groundless fears are expressed
  • Uncharacteristically aggressive

Of course, just like every child’s story is different, so too can the signs, especially for different age groups, click here to see a longer list separated by age and school grades.

While the effects of adult-on-child abuse are still a large concern, there is a growing category, spurred by hostile environments and social media: child-on-child abuse.

“That number is getting bigger,” Eaton says, closing her eyes for a moment as she considers the reality. “In fact the state of Missouri in the last year just created a new hotline for child-on-child abuse, because they’ve been getting so many calls.”

Children are even less likely to report they are victims of child-on-child abuse, so the onus falls on adults and teachers to recognize and report the abuse.

“Unfortunately, that number is getting bigger and bigger.”

Adding to a number that’s already too large for anyone’s comfort.

If you suspect child abuse in Missouri, call 1-800-392-3738 and in Kansas, call 1-800-922-5330.

To help The Salvation Army’s Children Shelter care for children in need, click here to donate now.