The Impact of Poverty and Neglect
Childhood abuse is a broad ranging term that covers attacks on the child’s sense of security; it should also cover the neglect of that child.
The balance all species is driven to maintain is their sense of safety, well-being and security, when we achieve this we are said to be in equilibrium, stress free. There are two pathways to achieving this homeostatic equilibrium; our sense of security. These are:
- Our ability to protect ourselves from boundary violations; and
- Our capacity to seek out resources from the environment.
It is when we are unable to protect ourselves we suffer abuse of some kind. Also when we are unable to acquire the elements we need from our environment we are in a state of neglect. Children who experience either abuse or neglect suffer elevated levels of stress and have a range of chemical actions washing across their central nervous system that will result in real brain damage.
Early work in this field has revealed damage to the frontal lobes and the hippocampus as was clearly demonstrated through investigation in the tragedy of the Romanian orphans. Further work has shown the cerebellum is also reduced in size. These wounds have a direct impact on the child’s ability to function in society, to regulate their emotions as well as their ability to learn and make memories.
Recent work done by John Gabrieli, of MIT and Silvia Bunge, of Berkley have shown that even growing up in a poor family can leave its mark on the development of the brain. Gabrieli and Bunge have demonstrated that the neocortex is thinner in laboratory animals that have been neglected as opposed to those who have not. Such an experiment with children would be out of the question and unethical but the use of a control group with animals allows for confirmation. However, studies of children who do live in poverty shows the same effect.
In reality scientists are showing these anatomical differences tied to poverty, neglect and abuse are having a great effect on the child’s ability to learn and develop functional behaviours. Importantly the earlier positive interventions can be made, the more able the extent of the damage can be reduced. One successful positive intervention included exposure to a rich and varied environment in which to develop.
In Australia the gap between the haves and have-nots is increasing and the numbers living in real poverty are growing; it is particularly evident in the aboriginal community. There seems to be neither little nor no appetite for political intervention to address this problem nor any real plan to provide the necessary rich environments so it will be left to schools and private providers to fill in the gap.
Dealing with children who suffer from abuse or neglect is a difficult task. Ideally these children should have access to individualized long-term psychological support but the negative correlation between support and poverty is undisputed. The availability of such support in the wealthy suburbs of the cities compared to the economic swamplands is in stark contrast.
What we do have available for these kids are schools and community programs. These need to be staffed by well trained personnel who understand the need for safe, secure and rich environments and the ability to manage these kids as they develop more functional behaviours. The task is to provide the training in both the impact of early childhood abuse and/or neglect and the provision of procedures to facilitate healing these children.