Carolyn Woo

In gatherings with Catholic Relief Services colleagues in Africa, I often inquire about their children. With beaming pride, they mention their biological children and other children raised as their own. The latter may be orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, the Rwanda genocide, civil wars and other calamities.

Sometimes they are blood relations, sometimes an orphan in the village. I am always touched by the love and generosity that have opened up homes, arms and hearts for the least and littlest among us.

While at CRS we do extensive work to reverse the root causes and effects of poverty, much less tractable are the traumas that children experience around the world because of war, abuse, displacement from home into hostile environments, loss of parents and siblings, brutal maiming and other trauma.

A 2009 estimate puts the number of children living in conflict areas at 1 billion, while a 2006 United Nations report projected 500 million to 1.5 billion children affected by violence each year. In addition to physical suffering, children in conflict areas are out of school and thus held back from preparation for the future even when conflicts come to an end. The civil war in Syria, for example, has affected 5.5 million children, says the U.N.

Even in stable societies, the abuse of children takes place at astounding rates. In the U.S., based on a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, government agencies log over 3 million child maltreatment cases each year with about a quarter of that number treated in emergency rooms of hospitals.

What are called adverse childhood experiences (neglect, abandonment, emotional and sexual abuse, parental drug addiction, incarceration of at least one parent) define the daily existence for about 35 million children or one third of those between ages 12-17 in the United States, according to the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health.

After decades of research, we now know that childhood traumas can severely compromise the child’s long-term development on many dimensions: emotional, physical, intellectual, social.

The damage starts early and extends its grip into adulthood. It can lead to substance abuse, depression, promiscuity, poor job performance and chronic diseases, experts say.

In “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” Alice Miller reminds us that “the truth about childhood is stored up in our bodies and lives in the depths of our souls. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings can be numbed and manipulated, our perceptions shamed and confused, our bodies tricked with medication, but our soul never forgets. And because we are one, one whole soul in one body, someday our body will present its bill.”

When parents or society fail children, who will step up for them? Who should? Whose children are they?