In recent weeks, the words “shocking,” “stunning,” and “heartbreaking” have been used to describe the murders and extreme neglect of North Texas children at the hands of their mothers.
Just recently, the mayor of Coppell shot and killed her 19-year-old daughter, a recent high school graduate, before turning the gun on herself. In Irving, a mother strangled her 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter then called a 911 operator to report the crime. And, a young Waco mother is accused of trying to suffocate her 4-month-old son at a Fort Worth hospital “because she wanted to make her life easier,” police said.
Over and over again, we hear these tragic stories and, for a moment, they stop us in our tracks. We shake our heads and wonder, “How could a mother do these horrible things to her own child? Where there missed or ignored warning signs that the mother needed help? Did family members or friends know something was wrong but remain silent? What is happening to our world?” In the search for answers, for many, the journey becomes a call to action.
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Around the globe, women and young girls are abused physically and mentally shattered every single day. I got to witness that terrible truth during a recent study abroad trip with students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Our travel included stops in Cambodia — a country that is full of desperately poor people.
In Phnom Penh, the capital and largest city of Cambodia, teenage girls and young women work as prostitutes in the streets or at brothels servicing seven or more men a night. Some mothers desperate to care for their other family members, even sell their daughters. Our group met with an anti-human trafficking advocate who described how a 5-year-old girl was sold to an Australian tourist wanting to have sex with her. The man paid just $500 for the child.
Despite the torture, abuse and extreme violence, I couldn’t help but notice how friendly and warm the kids were. They seem to value education when they are fortunate enough to receive it. Those who tirelessly walk the streets selling handmade scarves, bracelets or other brilliant handcrafts displayed a work ethic unlike any I’ve seen in some adults. The children always greeted us and other foreigners with a smile. As the mother of a 4-year-old, I couldn’t help but pray that the children will see a brighter future filled with opportunities I want for my own child.
While despicable crimes are committed against boys, in many societies, they are still valued more highly and treated better than girls. As a news producer who often covers stories about offenses committed against girls and women (and issues of gender inequality), I am often outraged, sometimes confused, but always concerned about what I can do to help bring about positive change.
In June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released the U.S. State Department’s 10th Annual Trafficking in Persons Report. The 300-plus page document outlined the challenges in fighting human trafficking and sex slavery. And, in addition to rating countries around the world, for the first time, the U.S. rated itself, too. Activists say by admitting it faces this issue, the U.S. has a powerful diplomatic tool to encourage others to help fight human trafficking.
Fighting child abuse and neglect on the local level also takes admitting there’s a problem – whether we are involved in the situation or a witness to it. Long before Coppell’s mayor allegedly killed her daughter then herself, The Dallas Morning News reports questions began to surface about her actions. According to the paper, the mayor was having financial problems and was being investigated for personal charges to her city credit card. Again, the question silently reverberates, “Where there missed or ignored warning signs that the mother needed help?” In 911 calls released by the Irving Police Department, the woman accused of strangling her two young children told an emergency operator that her son and daughter were autistic and that she wanted “normal kids.” The woman and her family were also the subject of Child Protective Services investigation last year. But an agency spokeswoman said there were no signs of neglect or abuse. The question silently echoes, “Did family members or friends know something was wrong but remain silent?”
No one has all the answers. Licensed clinical social workers say awareness is key. They encourage people to learn the signs of a neglected or abused child or an overwhelmed parent. Sometimes medical intervention is needed but that is not always the case. Discussing a concern with a family member, friend or counselor can help alleviate mental stress. Psychologists say effective prevention can avert emotional damage to children and potentially save lives.
Bridget Lewis is a news producer for NBC5. View more of her photos from Cambodia at www.texastoasia.blogspot.com. To learn more about human trafficking, visit www.state.gov. Read about the study abroad programs at the University of Nebraska at www.unl.edu.