When Alexis Gonzalez tells her story about overcoming child abuse, she’s surprised by how many people it resonates with. At one event after another in the Central Valley, she’s approached by audience members who can relate.
“People would disclose their own abuse and that they had never told anybody,” said Gonzalez, now 21. “People are actually taking something away from these public speaking experiences, and it’s started to become a natural part of my healing process. At first it was something that was part of the process to help myself, but it’s also been inspiring to do this for other people.”
Gonzalez, who speaks on behalf of the Fresno County Council on Child Abuse Prevention, was molested by her paternal grandfather when she was a girl. For years she suffered in silence, but is now sharing her story in the hopes that it can prevent other Central Valley children from experiencing abuse.
Children in Fresno and Tulare counties, which make up a large portion of the valley, are more likely to experience abuse than most of those that live elsewhere in the state.
Child abuse can take many forms — including neglect through malnutrition, emotional trauma or sexual abuse. While they don’t inherently cause abuse, poverty, drug addiction and family dysfunction can create environments where problems are more likely to erupt, experts say. Thousands of Central Valley families struggle with this toxic mix, punishing the most vulnerable.
Valley children are at risk
According to kidsdata.org, a program of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, child abuse and neglect is reported at a much higher rate in Fresno County than statewide. Fresno County had 71.9 reported cases per 1,000 residents in 2014, compared to 54.6 cases per 1,000 people statewide. In Tulare County the rate was even higher in 2014, with 79.9 reported cases per 1,000 people.*
There are a few outliers among small counties, like Tuolumne where there were 99.7 reported cases, but Fresno stands out for having such a high number of cases in a metropolitan area. About one million people live in Fresno County, the tenth-most populated county in the state. Tulare County, meanwhile, is smaller, with about 460,000 residents.
The numbers don’t depict the full horror of the problem, said Dr. Philip Hyden, the medical director of The Guilds Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Center at Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera, just north of Fresno. Hyden regularly sees children with horrendous injuries that were inflicted by parents or family members.
Children with marks from being beaten with hangers, belts and extension cords. Repeated, superficial stab wounds in multiple places. Kids who have gone days without food. Those who look years younger than their age, due to years of malnutrition and neglect.
Dr. Hyden has worked in multiple hospitals and medical settings throughout the country. He said that the valley is a place where he’s seen a surprisingly high number and intensity of child abuse cases.
He and his team evaluate claims of child abuse and possible neglect. This detective work can help law enforcement agencies and social services departments try to figure out the source of a child’s injuries or if claims of abuse are valid.
In too many situations, Hyden said, family members believe violence against children is acceptable or aren’t willing to alert authorities about it.
“Our society has gone way beyond what should be acceptable in terms of what behavior is taught,” he said. “We’re not specimens in a lab experiment that need to be shocked into compliance. If you hit a child or scream at them the child becomes afraid of the person that is supposed to be loving them and teaching them appropriate behavior.”
In the greater Fresno area, a variety of factors contribute to abuse, including multi-generational poverty, drug addiction and being unprepared to raise a child, Hyden has found.
The area has long struggled with poverty: in 2011, one in four in Fresno County lived below the poverty line. The region also has a high rate of methamphetamine use, which the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office is trying to address with a task force.
Abuse can also manifest through neglect. Children who are malnourished or don’t receive the emotional support they need are also victims.
The biggest weapon against abuse is getting family members to speak up. Years after she was abused, Gonzalez learned that that some family members were suspicious of her grandfather but never said anything.
She speaks about how she felt ashamed of the abuse, and, when it was later disclosed, how some family members rejected her because they didn’t believe her.
Telling her story wasn’t easy at first. In fact, initially she didn’t say anything at all — it was only years later, when her mother discovered journal entries describing the abuse, that Gonzalez began talking about what had happened to her. Her grandfather, Luis Aldaña Gonzalez, was convicted in 2010 for molesting multiple family members and sentenced to 195 years in prison.
Struggling families lack resources
Most cases that Hyden sees aren’t as clear-cut as Gonzalez’s, he said. Often parents aren’t able to control their own behavior or be responsible, which will lead them to neglect their children or punish them too severely. California law says that child abuse is when someone “willfully causes or permits any child to suffer, or inflicts thereon unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering.”
While the use of corporal punishment is a gray area, Hyden looks out for places where adults have crossed the line.
“I’m not here to say if that’s right or wrong, but many parents don’t have the ability to refrain on their impulsivity and may hit a child too hard,” he said. “If you cause an injury, however transient, that’s child abuse as it’s a form of mistreatment.”
Slowly trying to turn the tide
The difficult-to-break cycle of multigenerational poverty is one of the major causes of child abuse, said Esther Franco, executive director of the Fresno Council on Child Abuse Prevention. It’s not necessarily the lack of money, but the problems that being poor and the circumstances surrounding it that’s the problem, she said. For example, some migrant families, who have unstable work situations, must turn to extended family members or friends for childcare. It can be difficult for parents who are overstressed or work long hours to spot abuse.
“Once you’re stuck in poverty it’s really hard to get out,” Franco said.
“And if you’re not teaching kids to do better or to advance yourself and that’s all you know, it’s very difficult to get out. That’s your norm.”
Franco’s organization is trying to break that cycle and prevent abuse. The work is tough, but Hyden said that it’s worth it.
“There’s a joy in protecting a child,” he said.
Likewise, Gonzalez hopes that her outreach pays off in preventing other children from experiencing what she did. A student at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, she plans to transfer to a four-year university soon, where she will study psychology.
She said that speaking out is important to her because it’s both part of her own healing process and may help others realize the work they need to do in order to recover from their own abuse or in helping others.
“It’s never too late to share your own story,” she said. “There are a lot of people that assume if something happened years ago that they’re over it, but it will always come back up. It’s never too late to start healing.”
Signs of child abuse to watch out for
Child abuse isn’t always obvious, but it can be prevented. Most children are abused by someone they know, not a stranger. The following are general guidelines of what to keep watch for, according to the Fresno Council on Child Abuse Prevention:
● Children with injuries that are uncommon and who give hard-to-believe explanations for how they got there
● Children who are afraid of going home to their parents or who make extreme efforts to avoid doing so
● Changes in a child’s diet
● Children who exhibit physical manifestations of stress, such as upset stomach, illness and general poor health
● Children who have other forms of malaise, such as poor hygiene or a general lack of interest in their usual activities
● Adults who exhibit suspicious behavior or give unusual excuses for a child’s injury
For more information, see the council’s 10 signs of child abuse and 10 things you can do. Children rarely report abuse, and often it takes an adult in their life to recognize the signs and be willing to say something. To report suspected abuse, call your county’s Child Protective Services hotline.
*The Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health is a financial sponsor of the California Health Report.