Are we failing our children?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 27, 2013

By Walt Merrell

Pearl Buck once said, “If our American way of life fails the child, it fails us all.”

In some respects, our American way of life is failing our children.

Nationwide, a report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds. More than five children die every day in our country as a result of child abuse. Approximately 80 percent of those children who die at the hands of an abuser are under the age of four. And more than 90 percent of all juvenile sex abuse victims know their perpetrator in some way. That means, if you know a juvenile sex abuse victim, you likely know their perpetrator, too.

Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education. In 2010, 9,586 children were victims of abuse or neglect in Alabama. Of these children, 37.6 percent were neglected, 50.0 percent were physically abused, and 22.5 percent were sexually abused.

These numbers continue to rise.

Prosecutions, not only in Covington County, but all across the State of Alabama, are increasing as well. But I find a disturbing trend in child abuse prosecutions. The first disturbing trend I see is that the child victim often has little or no family support through the prosecution and court process. Some families seem to value the economic contribution of the offender more than they do the preservation of a child’s innocence

Family members sometimes come into our office and proudly proclaim that the child has recanted, only for us to find out shortly afterwards that the parents bought the teenaged girl a new truck, or promised the elementary-aged victim a trip to Disney World. The good Lord only knows how many of these coerced recantations we don’t catch.

All too often, these children find themselves trapped between being on a island, by themselves, trying to do the right thing, and seeking the one thing they care most about in the world, the love of family. These children are innocent. Adults corrupt them physically and then later, psychologically.

The second disturbing trend I’ve seen is that the court system abuses the child all over again. They are forced to take the stand to relive the terror of the abuse, chastised under tedious and arduous cross examinations by skilled lawyers who are far more educated than the victim, and then held to unrealistic standards by juries.

We’ve all laughed about this truism before, “Children seldom misquote. In fact, they usually repeat word for word what you shouldn’t have said.” Yet, we forget about this truism when we put a child on the witness stand.

Neighbors turn a blind eye, aunts or uncles don’t want “to get involved,” friends of the family seek bliss in ignorance. Who are they protecting? Our children? Our future? Certainly not. They are protecting themselves and their own selfish agendas.

So, because there are so few who have the courage to advocate for our children, so few who have the courage of Grace Jeter, who valiantly prosecutes abusers every day, so few who have the courage of Lesa Syler and all of the folks at the Department of Human Resources who stand guard, 24 hours a day, ready to protect any child in need… because there are so few who have the courage of Sheriff Dennis Meeks and his men, and all of the other fine law enforcement officers at the Andalusia, Opp, Florala and other police departments who fight this battle and wage this war every day. Because there are so few with the courage it takes, we will continue to stand up for those children, and we will fight for them – as we all should. Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of these little ones, you do unto me.” Where are you in this fight? What’s more important to you, “mom?” The hope of the man you think he could be or the reality of the monster he is? What’s more important to you, “dad?” The love you hope to gain from that woman, or the desperate love you already have from this innocent child? Put selfishness aside, and put the needs of the children around you before your own. We challenge you, who are not fighting, to fight for those who can’t.

And to each and every child victim out there… “Reach out for help… and we will be there.”


Merrell is in his first term as district attorney in the 22nd Judicial Circuit. This column is adapted from a speech he gave for child abuse awareness month.