April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month (sponsored by the US Department of Health and Human Services). Child abuse is well known to most of us because of its attention in medicine, government social service agencies, and especially the media. It is not usually a topic of discussion in orthodontic circles. It is, however, a subject that all of us who interact with children on a regular basis should be aware of. Other than the teacher, the orthodontist may see the child more often than any other professional.
My oldest brother taught primary school in Southern California for over 30 years. Before retiring, he received this letter from a former student who had been a victim of child abuse. She wrote the following.
Dear Mr. Turley:
I am not sure if this is even how your name is spelled. I only have my memory to go on, at the age of six. I doubt you will remember me half as well as I remembered you over the years. But I have always wanted to write to you to tell you what a wonderful teacher you were to me as a child.
Twenty-eight years ago, you were the kindest man I had ever encountered. I had been living in an extremely abusive household that looked good to the outside world but was hell from within. The first twelve years of my life I had been very severely physically, mentally, and sexually abused by my father, and neglected by my mother. The dirt behind my ears that you would always call my mother about was only a minor symptom of my mother’s avoidance of what she knew was happening to me.
I do not want this to be a pity party letter, as it is not. I have gone through many years of therapy and am doing very well…
I guess what I wanted you to know was, that the weird little kid who sat inside while the other kids played, the kid who sucked her thumb, and the kid that seemed to have an endless need for attention, had a reason for being that way. I also wanted you to know how much I appreciated the fact that you were the first man in my life that was kind to me and cared about me, and wanted nothing in return. You were just a good kind man who cared, and I will always remember you with a warm fuzzy feeling.
I think the letter illustrates well the tragedy of child abuse and the need for professionals to be more involved in the identification of abuse. It also illustrates the positive influence that people outside the family may have on such a child’s life. All of us who deal with children, whether we are a teacher, a children’s dentist, or an orthodontist, must remember that our interactions can have lasting effects. We must each take the time to be caring and supportive to the children whom we treat. In the case of parental child abuse, we may be the only positive adult role model this child has.