On Monday, a video uploaded to YouTube in late April went viral on social media outlets. The link was titled, "This Ad Has a Secret Anti-Abuse Message That Only Kids Can See," and "touching," "heartbreaking," "inspirational," and "hopeful" were probably some of the words that many viewers would’ve used to describe it. Made by the Aid to Children and Adolescents at Risk Foundation, the objective was to answer the question, “How do we get our message across to kids, even when they’re accompanied by an adult?” So the video depicts two messages being displayed for different target audiences. One audience consists of adults (or people who are at least taller than a typical 10-year-old), and the other is children (or anyone who’s shorter than the average height of a 10-year-old). The message for the adult audience is about advocacy for battered children. To the children, a number to an abuse hotline is listed, along with other messages to encourage them to seek help.
While watching the video, I couldn’t stop thinking about my personal familiarity of how abuse goes on in a home. Even after calling an abuse hotline and getting authorities involved, my situation still turned out to be a nightmare in the hands of “advocates.” Only months ago, I was 19, and my sister, who was majorly affected, happened to be a 16-year-old minor. Things still went wrong for us, even at our age. Though created with compassionate intent, the video left me feeling hopeless because I figured it won’t help like its creators intended, especially in a place like New Jersey, where I used to live.
An in-depth personal account would help me explain the real problems with child-abuse advocacy, but it’s better that I discuss my conclusions as a sophomore research scholar at Cornell University. Recently, I focused on being an advocate and not a victim by searching for solutions to the problems created by child-custody cases involving domestic violence in New Jersey. Based upon my own understanding and research, I can describe what’s wrong with the video by using two adjectives: 1) It's ineffective, and 2) It's irrelevant. The first might be very obvious, but I’ll briefly point it out and then get into what’s wrong in New Jersey that might keep this ad from being effective.
Aside from the fact that the ad's “secret” message is not really a secret anymore, there are some other observable problems. Access to resources outside of the home or in the public sphere is difficult, even improbable, for abused children. And even though children are definitely more tech-savvy these days, phone usage is also probably out of their reach. Perhaps most of all, abuse instills fear. Calling a hotline would be nothing short of brave, which many abused people (especially young children) aren’t empowered to be by their abusers.
Imagine that an abused child is brave enough to call an abuse hotline. Generally, people think of this as a moment of relief, but in many places, the battle just gets more complicated. In New Jersey, the child-welfare system, mainly the Department of Children and Families (DCF), can worsen the case for abused children. Sadly, tragedies occur like that of the toddler boy talked about in this Associated Press video. In a Huffington Post article about this relatively recent tragedy, the author stated that in spite of increased caseload and low performance levels, “the state legislature cut $11.5 million from the 2013 DCF budget.”
Under New Jersey law, the best interest of the child is defined as “frequent and continuing contact with both parents and having both parents share the rights and responsibilities of child rearing” (N.J.S.A. 9:2-4.). This seems appropriate until one looks at the recent policy changes made in 2009 concerning DCF’s domestic-violence guidelines. The changes basically do not require any automatic loss of custody when domestic violence is involved.
As if things cannot get any worse for abused children, the court system has been in the headlines because there’s been a statewide judge shortage since 2011. New Jersey appoints judges instead of electing them, so the state's lack of judges is a political problem and a tragedy for battered children.
The spread of an anti-abuse ad isn’t going to help as much as people would hope. Often, there are serious implications in budgeting and politics that affect the performance of all aspects of the child-welfare system, which include law enforcement, programs like the DCF, and court systems. Awareness is progress, but the real issues often go unaddressed and unrealized by the public.