As a member of a Foster Care Review Board, I listen as parents whose children have been removed from their homes as a result of abuse or neglect explain how much they love their children and that there was no way they'd ever abused them. They point to smiling pictures of their beautiful children as proof of their stellar parenting.
That smile means nothing.
The statistics about child abuse are staggering. There are more than three million reports of child abuse made every year in our country. What that tells me is that anyone who is reading this has very likely been abused or had someone in your life who has been. If it's you, did you smile for photographs? If it's someone you know, do you think they smiled for photographs? Most likely you and they did. That’s what people do, abused or not!
But what you need to look for is not the smile, not the teeth…but the “eyes". Look deeper and you can likely see the pain, the hollowness.
A few warning signs that indicate that a child might be being abused:
- frequent school absences
- inappropriately dressed for the weather
- consistently dirty
- overly secretive
- runs away from home
- unexplained injuries
- sleep problems/nightmares
- doesn't want to go home
- consistently tired
- over-sexualized behavior
Some are more obvious than others and one of the less obvious signs is this: in some children, especially those who have been sexually abused, the child has an overwhelming desire to please and thus will be extra sweet and smile even more often….especially for photographs.
I assumed that everyone knew that abused children smile in photographs, but what this taught me was that I was wrong—maybe everyone doesn’t know. But now you do…even abused children smile for photographs…so look beyond the smile…know the signs.
And if you do come across someone who you suspect is in fact being abused, call 911 or call 1-800-4-A-CHILD.
JESSICA NICELY is a dedicated advocate for child abuse prevention, awareness and treatment. She is the author of All My Friends are Zeros: My Secret to Overcoming Adverse Childhood Experiences.