By Beth Bitler
We talk a lot about preventing violence around children, and there is no doubt that it’s a crucial issue in the world we live in today. We know from years of research – not to mention the observation of parents and teachers – that children who are exposed to violence at home, in the community or in the media are at risk for negative outcomes. Everything from health problems to aggressive behavior to early drug use; at the core is violence.
Less well-defined but every bit as damaging is what I call “verbal violence.” Most of us have seen a parent at the end of his or her rope yelling at a child, calling the child hurtful names and so on. When we see it we might feel the need to step in and defuse the situation and allow the parent to calm down; in some way we understand that words can, indeed, hurt a child.
So how is it different when adults insult, swear, ridicule and put down others who are look different, talk different, love different or move different than they do? Do we bystanders somehow believe this does not affect the children who witness it via TV, radio or internet?
Yesterday I read a news story about a fifth-grade Latina girl, taunted by classmates in her Christian private school, who said that she would be deported in the fall, because “my parents don’t like Mexicans and they are voting for Mr. Trump.” Her father, a Mexican immigrant and U.S. citizen, reassured the crying child that they are staying right where they are, and tried to explain what’s being said in the news to his daughter without hating back. He began to understand the profound impact that would-be leaders and their followers, espousing their views of bigotry and hatred, have on both the child being berated and the child doing the berating. Both are robbed of one of the most precious gifts of childhood – to be accepted as you are and enjoy the world of a child, free of adult prejudices.
My first job out of college was in a human relations commission, where I provided education to groups on equality, discrimination and civil rights. That was more than 30 years ago. I developed a program for helping children to accept each other, get to know each other and forge friendships based on character instead of color. I’d talk with the kids about what they heard around them and how they felt about nasty comments. Everything they said then could be said now. Here we are again.
Each of us – every single adult – has a responsibility to create a world with less violence, not only violence directed at children, but also violence in our communities, nation and world. Not only physical violence but verbal violence as well. We’ve seen what the tears in our social fabric from hatred have done in the past.
Our Front Porch Project helps folks think of small ways that each individual can help prevent child abuse. What if we applied that same principle to preventing all kinds of violence? What if each one of us came up with some small ways to create a more civil, caring society and lessen the chances of violence taking hold of our homes, communities and nations?
I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that some of the rhetoric we hear in public forums these days stokes the fire of hatred, bigotry and negative thinking and that fire can quickly spread into violence. And I know that the kinds of language kids hear from adults – insults, obscenities, attacks – will become “normal” to them if we don’t change ourselves into respectful, caring adults who value each life around us. And most importantly, what do we model to the kids around us? An attitude of “we’re all in this together” or one of “every man for himself”?
Think about the kind of world you want for all children and figure out a way that you, in whatever small area of influence you have, can take a step toward creating that world. Come on, we can do it.
By Beth Bitler
The headlines blasted the shocking news this week that a former Amish couple, Daniel and Savilla Stoltzfus of Quarryville, Lancaster County, had been arrested for “gifting” their then-14-year-old daughter four years ago to Lee Kaplan, a man then in his late forties. They told police they gave Kaplan their daughter in gratitude for his help in saving their farm from financial ruin. When police got a neighbor’s tip and finally entered Kaplan’s Feasterville, Bucks County house, they found a total of 12 young girls ranging in age from 6 months to 18 years. Police say Kaplan sexually abused the Stoltzfuses’ daughter who was forced to bear him two of the children rescued from the house.
How many of us read or heard that news and simply turned away in disgust and dismay, shaking our heads, and thinking, “We live in a crazy world.”
Yes, we do. And it’s a horribly brutal, callous and predatory world for thousands of Pennsylvania children. Turning our heads and hearts from this latest outrage is not the answer and not worthy of our children. The kids being silently and systematically victimized every day throughout the commonwealth cry out for our attention and our determination to end their suffering and abuse. Each of us must condemn the barbaric and unconscionable mental, physical and sexual abuse of Pennsylvania’s children. And we have to do so in a very public way.
I applaud as a hero Kaplan’s neighbor who called in her suspicions to authorities. She and others witnessed for years odd behavior involving the young girls living in that house. They noticed that there were multiple children occasionally peeking furtively out the windows but who never went to school. The woman who finally alerted police told reporters about the girls, “They’re so sad and fearful every time I see them. That’s what made me call.” She added, “I’ve been telling my husband for years ‘something isn’t right, something isn’t right.’” This time when she contacted authorities, Pennsylvania’s child-protection system worked as designed. Police discovered, not a loving home, but something far more sinister and inhumane.
In the end, it’s pretty damn simple. Go with your gut. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Call ChildLine at 800-932-0313. Alert the professionals. Let them investigate. Your action could save a child’s life.
And take one more step: Right now, I ask you please to join Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance and display and wear a blue ribbon.