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Posted: January 10, 2010 12:01 a.m.

Tears of the Innocent

Child abuse often begins a lifetime cycle of abuse

Photo Illustration by Brittany Thomas /

The following is the first in a three-part series looking at domestic violence in Newton County. Names have been changed to protect the victims and their families.

*Mary Smith was just 4-years-old when her mother was committed to a mental health facility. Though she has no memory of abuse suffered previously, she remembers clearly her father’s reason for having her mother committed.

"I remember asking my Daddy why she was there," she said. "And he told me that she had to stay there because he was scared she was going to hurt me."

Her mother stayed in the hospital and was given shock treatments and various medications to treat what doctors eventually diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. When she took her medication correctly, things were better, but according to Mary, she never did.

"I remember that she kept me locked in a closet when Daddy was at work," she said. "I know now that she was seeing other men, but at the time I was too young to understand that. I was always out by the time Daddy got home, and when I told him what she had done, he would say ‘you’re going to have to overlook her.’ That’s not much help to a child who can’t defend herself though," said Mary with a sad smile.

When she was 8-years-old, her mother broke three of her dad’s ribs with an axe handle. She was once more taken to the hospital, and Mary went to live with her aunt for a while but soon enough her mother was back, and she was sent back home to live.

"She would slap you as soon as look at you," she said of her mother. "When you got up in the morning, you wouldn’t know if she was going to be in a good mood or slap you across the face."

But more damaging than her heavy hand was Mary’s mother’s verbal abuse of her daughter.

"She would always put us down," said Mary. "Nothing we ever did was good enough. We never looked right, nothing ever made her happy."

When she was 13-years-old, Mary went to work and decided to buy some clothes for herself and her mother. She bought her mom’s clothes first and then some for herself. Her mother decided she wanted Mary’s clothing and Mary told her no.

"When I came home from work the next day, she had poured bleach on all my new clothes," she said. "She would do mean things like that all the time – little things to make life hard. She would hide toilet paper and the shampoo and conditioner so that we couldn’t use it."

Although Mary wasn’t subjected to much in the way of physical abuse, according to a study of more than 500 adults headed by Martin Teicher, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Developmental Biopsychiatry Research Program at McLean Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School, verbal abuse during childhood can scar deeply.

It was found that there was a significant link between verbal abuse and witnessing domestic violence and dissociative symptoms and severe depression in adults. Basically, dissociation is a mental process that allows a person to sever a connection to a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions and sense of identity. According to the study, emotional abuse can cause dissociation more then sexual abuse.

When Mary was 16-years-old, her mother got pregnant again, and Mary was told by her father that she would have to quit school and take care of her.

"When Daddy said I needed to quit school, I did," she said with a sigh. "My Daddy was tenderhearted, and I feel like I take after him. My [younger] sister would yell at my mother and knock her down but I wouldn’t fuss at her even when she was mean to me. I have a kind heart and I remember feeling so bad for her. The way I am, I never want people mad at me. I will pretty much do anything to keep people from being upset with me."

A study at the University of New Hampshire found that 63 percent of more than 3,000 patients studied reported one or more cases of verbal aggression toward children in their homes.

According to Prevent Child Abuse Georgia there were more than 85,000 incidents of child abuse reported in the state in 2002, and of those approximately 85 percent of the abuse occurred in the child’s home. The same study reported that roughly half of the perpetrators of abuse were biological parents.

Newton County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Sharron Stewart said that in a number of cases, the abuser has been abused in the past.

"It has been proven that growing up in that sort of environment can lead to the victim growing up to victimize," she said. "It is so damaging to them because they think this behavior is OK unless they get help for it. To them, it’s just how a family behaves."

Sheena Berry, the Executive Director of Prevent Child Abuse Newton, agreed with Stewart’s statement, saying that research shows children who are abused or who grow up in a home where abuse is prevalent tend to find themselves in abusive relationships with adults.

"That’s normal life," explained Berry. "So they lean toward those types of relationships."

And while physical abuse and sexual abuse get more attention, according to Berry the emotional abuse is much harder to heal from.

"You can heal from sexual and physical abuse," she said. "Those scars will heal, but when it is emotional abuse, it can last a lifetime. It’s in your mind, and your mind controls depression, your health, stress – multiple things. Emotional abuse is the hard one to fix."

Low self-esteem and acting out are evidence of childhood abuse.

"If you aren’t getting that acceptance at home, you seek it out in one form or another," said Berry. "When you’re coming up and being told all the time ‘you’re not worth anything,’ you tend to believe things you are being told over and over again. We have a lot of young people acting out because of what they’re hearing at home. It’s just so important that we nurture our children and that we build them up and encourage and support them. Those are basic needs. We’re humans and we need love, support and appreciation."

Now 54-years-old, Mary is a mother herself. But the abuse she suffered as a child did not come to an end when she became an adult. Although she escaped her mother, she ran from her childhood home right back into the arms of abuse.

This series will continue next Sunday and examine causes and symptoms of adult-on-adult abuse.

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