What Leaders Need to Know About Child Abuse and the Workplace

What Leaders Need to Know About Child Abuse and the Workplace

Since 1993, April has been designated National Child Abuse Prevention Month. This year’s theme for the national campaign is “Every day, we help positive childhood experience take root!”[i]

Positive childhood experiences (PCEs) is an idea we should all support. As leaders, how can we help that idea take root?

Speaking from personal experience, it can be easy to dismiss or overlook the traumas and challenges other people face if we have not faced them ourselves or if we do not see visible displays of trauma.

Thinking about the workplace environment, since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, most people have become more educated on the needs of people who need help and accommodations. We know or have seen people who are permanently confined to a wheelchair or who must adapt after losing a limb or who display other physical impairments.

Yet, when the trauma results from childhood abuse and is hidden behind a façade or buried deep inside a person’s psyche, what do leaders in the workplace need to learn or understand about the lingering effects of child abuse?

The first thing a leader needs to realize is that child abuse is often hidden in plain sight.

During my law enforcement career, when necessary, I found a benefit in blending in with the crowd around me and acting like others when I didn’t want to draw attention to my official capacity. In the typical workplace, a leader can look out among his or her employees and see what he or she wants to see – everyone doing their job and acting like everyone else and not seeing the real struggles taking place.

Unfortunately, this idyllic (i.e., uninformed) scenario is often wrong. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 7 (14%) children experience a form of child abuse or neglect which costs approximately $428 billion to the economy.[ii]

Child abuse has an impact on employees in two fundamental ways. First, if an employee was a victim of abuse as a child, he or she will show up to work with that experience having had an impact on the formation of their brain or executive functions. It’s possible that an unstable, stressful, or abusive work environment can trigger emotional responses that, on the surface, may seem irrational but are grounded and based on how they were treated as a child.

This effect on the brain and executive functions is not just an opinion, it is supported by scientific research. In a 2005 report authored by Dr. Robert F. Anda, Dr. Vincent J. Felitti, Dr. Bruce Perry, and others, they found that “converging evidence from neurobiology and epidemiology suggests that early life stress such as abuse and related adverse experiences cause enduring brain dysfunction that, in turn, affects health and quality of life throughout the lifespan.”[iii]

Second, if the employee was not a victim of child abuse, but is engaged in child abuse, then, again, that employee is bringing to work the ramifications of engaging in physical, emotional, or sexual abuse against children. Once again, an employee’s emotional responses to events at work could be affected by their actions at home (not to mention they may be potentially criminally liable).

The second thing a leader needs to realize is that child abuse and neglect can be prevented, and leaders have a role in the prevention of abuse and neglect. 

One organization promoting the prevention of child abuse is Prevent Child Abuse America. The organization has a 50-year history “committed to preventing child abuse and neglect before it happens. ​We promote programs and resources informed by science that enable kids, families, and entire communities to thrive—today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.”[iv]

Drawing upon a few of their suggestions for preventing abuse, leaders in the business, faith, educational, and policy sectors can undertake these simple steps:[v]

  1. Recognize that supporting families and children will lead to economic growth.   
  2. Reduce the hurdles faced by families who need support and resources.
  3. Host trainings on how to recognize, respond to, and prevent child abuse and neglect.
  4. Be attuned to noticing if something seems wrong with a student (employee) and follow-up. 

The long-term effects of COVID-19 will obviously take a while to understand. However, leaders should be aware that as more employees work from home, and will potentially do so for years to come as business models change, the potential for child abuse increases while the discovery of abuse decreases.

Reports indicate that referrals to law enforcement and Child Protection Services (CPS) are down (because children are not at school where effects are more easily seen) while calls to national hotlines are up.

RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), a national sexual assault hotline, saw an increase from calls by minors during the pandemic in 2020. Childhelp, a confidential support hotline, reported “a 40% increase in the total number of contacts in May 2020 compared to May 2019.”[vi]

Look, sometimes statistics can be overwhelming, misleading, or hard to put in perspective. At the end of the day, leaders need to be trauma-informed and trauma-responsive to issues such as child abuse that can have a direct effect on their employees and their employees' families.

As leaders, we may not be able to provide adults with positive childhood experiences, but we can provide them with positive work experiences in a way that creates trust, commitment, and well-being among employees. Leaders can work to overcome the traumas associated with child abuse and neglect.

The first step is in being aware of the challenges; the second step is doing something about those challenges.

Both steps require us to build trust utilizing a trauma-informed approach to leadership. Grace and Peace,