GRANDPARTNERS FOR GRANDPARENTS
Jim Hmurovich of Prevent Child Abuse America:
An impassioned grandfather’s call to action
Christine Crosby, GRAND Magazine’s Editorial Director, sat down to chat with Jim Hmurovich, current President and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America (PCAA), during PCAA’s 2012 National Conference, “Awaken to Change,” in Jacksonville, Florida. We are honored to share that exclusive interview with you.
GRAND: What motivated you to take on a role like this, as CEO of PCAA?
JH: There were five things:
1. When I worked in the Department of Corrections, a consultant told us that 63% of the children in our boys’ and girls’ school had been abused.
2. I was at the Indiana Women’s prison one day, and I asked the superintendent what the most common thing a woman says when she gets here, to a maximum security prison. The number-one thing they said was that it was the first time in their life they ever felt safe. That blew me away!
3. I was asked by the governor to take over the state welfare department, and quite honestly, I was a fish out of water. I met up with a lot of moms who were successful in getting off of cash assistance. When I asked them why, every one of those ladies said, “Somebody took the time. … Somebody took the time to take my child to the emergency room, to give me confidence, to do something. But it always started with, ‘somebody took the time.’”
4. A fellow from New Zealand who was a child welfare director came to Indiana, and I asked him, “You’ve been in the United States for a while. What is your observation about our child welfare system?” He said, “You Americans are more interested in finding fault than you are in solving the problems.” That stunned me, to be quite honest!
5. Finally, all those random acts of knowledge were tied together by what’s called the “Adverse Childhood Experience Research” done by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It basically says that when a child is abused or neglected, there is, among other things, a higher probability that they will be at risk of chronic health problems, mental health issues, and substance abuse issues. Then, when I did other research, I found that children who had been abused have a higher rate of incidence of academic failure, juvenile delinquency, and criminal behavior. Then, all of a sudden all of these things started making sense. I told myself, This is what I need to know to advocate for children.
GRAND: What do you see as the biggest contributing factor to child abuse and neglect?
JH: First of all, if we break it down according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 80% of all child maltreatment is neglect; the remainder is abuse. I think there are different reasons. There is a high tie-in between neglect and poverty issues, although why there is a relationship between poverty and child neglect is unknown. There is so much disagreement in the field, but I want to be careful not to say … that poor people and single parents hurt their children. I was raised by a single mom whose husband died when I was very young.
When it comes to abuse, I think we need to categorize the types of abuse. Unfortunately, we’ve all heard about the Sandusky trial at Penn State. The reason for that [type of] abuse, in many instances, is because somebody the child knew and trusted and who their parents trusted violated that trust and groomed that child to take advantage of them. This puts a different responsibility on the parents, [to realize] that even people you trust can hurt your child.
I think parents need to be vigilant about having age-appropriate discussions with their children about who, what, where, why, and how. I learned from predators that one of the red warnings for them to back off is when the children know the correct anatomical names of their body parts. I think one of the biggest things is parents knowing that one-on-one time between one adult and one child, no matter how much you trust the other adult, is probably not the best practice. In sexual abuse practice, that is one set.
In emotional and physical abuse, I see two major reasons: frustration with the child’s behavior and economic stress. Whoever the caretaker is, those precipitating factors can sometimes result in abuse, emotionally or physically. But the bottom line to all of it? I think stress is the major factor of abuse in general. There are different reasons that lead to different outcomes.
GRAND: How important is the role model in parenting? Is that still considered a pretty strong indicator?
JH: Absolutely. With as much tragedy as I’ve seen in the prison system and child welfare system, I firmly believe that caretakers want to be the best caretakers they can. I still believe that. I think there are a million reasons why [they’re] not. Maybe, culturally, that was the way the parent was raised; maybe it’s the stress factor. What we ought to do is continually focus on caretaker information. Having the right information is invaluable to a parent or caregiver in raising that child. And I think it is the parent’s or caretaker’s job to raise a child; I don’t think anyone would argue that government is a good foster parent to a child. I believe that by preparing the parent, we can stop abuse and neglect from ever occurring. That means preparing Mom and Dad prenatally and post-natally, making sure they are aware of what is normal [child] behavior and of behavior that will get on your nerves. Learn to walk away, take a deep breath. Those things are important. It all stems from parenting information, because parents want to be the best they can.
GRAND: So you advocate for parenting information. Where would you start with that: In the school system? At what level?
JH: Yes, I absolutely advocate for every agency, faith organization, and even corporations who have employee-assistance programs to somehow see the importance of parenting information.
Where would it start? Wow! We are beginning to understand several things about child abuse and, specifically, about bullying and violence. We’re finding out that some of those responses can be built into parenting as early as infancy. One year old, two years old — they start modeling behavior. One of the things I’ve learned, and I’m still in the process of learning, is that when it comes to bullying, in what we interpret as peer-to-peer abuse, the children don’t have empathy and respect for other children. So, to me, that indicates that starting with preschool, kindergarten, grade school, all the way up through high school, we [need to] build into the curriculum of each subject — not just home economics or whatever the new term is — teaching empathy so children understand it’s their responsibility to respect other children.
GRAND: How does the United States stack up? Are other countries doing a better job?
JH: You know, I love this country and I think we do a lot of things great. One thing we are not doing great, in my opinion, is that we don’t have a plan for children in this country. I don’t care if we call it a child well-being plan, a child-development plan, or a child-abuse prevention plan; it’s irrelevant what we call it. We improve what we measure, and we are not measuring child welfare and integrating it into all the things government, corporations, community organizations, and whatnot on a daily basis. Because of that, I don’t think it’s a priority in our country.
In the first 2012 U.S. presidential debates, we talked about two legs of a three-legged stool and talked about national security, which I do support. We heard a lot about economic stability and job development, which I support. But the third leg … Where is the discussion about children and family? It’s almost a rhetorical question. What good is national security and economic stability if you don’t have the people to benefit from the very thing you’re giving them? I don’t think we do that very well. There is no integrated, cross-discipline plan that would make us as a nation that works together.
GRAND: Could you identify other countries that are doing this very thing, putting a priority on children and parenting?
JH: Some Scandinavian countries have thought-through policies about family leave and home visitation services.England has been doing home visitation services for a long time. Scandinavian counties are doing a good thing with health care and building into corporate policies. I guess it’s important for me to say, I don’t think child well-being is the sole responsibility of the government. In fact, I think the government should set the expectation and the vision. Every child should have the right to healthy development. How are we, as a nation, going to support that to get to that vision? I think that’s the role of government. Everyone should be saying, “This child is my child, even though they are my next-door neighbor’s child.” We’ve got to move from, “That child is someone else’s kid or property.” I hate to use that word [property]. We should all be good stewards of all children, no matter whose they are.
GRAND: Let’s talk for a moment about grandparenting. I understand you are a grandparent.
JH: I am a proud granddad. I have four beautiful grandchildren. And they are the smartest. I won’t go so far as to say they are the best behaved yet.
GRAND: What do they call you?
JH: Grandpa Jim
GRAND: What are the biggest joy and the biggest challenge of being a grandparent today?
JH: It isn’t about the interpersonal relationship with them [for me]. The biggest challenge to me is that I have a responsibility to ensure they have a good life, like I had. How do we create a culture, a social norm, in which there is respect, appreciation, and gratitude for them?
I have to tell you, I get nervous when I look at the way things are happening now, at the stress children are under — stressful situations in grade school, the competition of high school, the bullying in all forms. That makes me nervous. So, in one respect, the biggest challenge is my role as a CEO of a national organization that is advocating for children. The reason I feel so intensely that I need to do something is because these four grandchildren are the cutest things in the world and I don’t want anyone to ever hurt them. I want them to enjoy their lives. I have an obligation to do what I think we should all be able to do.
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please contact Christine Crosby.