See the Signs: Recognizing and Preventing Child Abuse, Ep. 9 of Around Our Home Podcast

See the Signs: Recognizing and Preventing Child Abuse, Ep. 9 of Around Our Home Podcast

-Welcome to Around Our Home. A show about the impact Mercy Home for Boys & Girls has on kids and families in need in the Chicago community. Each episode, you’ll hear informative interviews as well as supportive tips and strategies that you can use in your daily life to become a happier, healthier version of yourself. This is Around our Home, I’m Christine Nikolich. My guests today are Emily Neal, Mercy Home’s Vice President of Organizational Development, and Dana Firmin-Murray a Therapist at Mercy Home. Both Emily and Dana have spent years working with young people helping them heal from trauma they’ve experienced while growing up. For Child Abuse Prevention month, I sat down with them to discuss the signs a child may be experiencing if they’ve been abused, how that abuse affects them, and steps we can all take to prevent it from happening. Thanks for joining me today. I really appreciate it. Can you both start off by explaining your roles at Mercy Home and how your role helps kids who came into our care?

– Sure, my name is Emily Neal. I’m the Vice President of Organizational Development and Clinical Operations at Mercy Home. So that role encompasses a number of different functions including staff training and development, program evaluation, our nurse and kind of medical services and also our clinical director. I’ve been here for almost 18 years and started as a therapist, and have always had like a really strong commitment to wanting to do whatever I can to support our young people and their families. But now in this season of my career, supporting other coworkers in the work that they’re doing.

– My name is Dana Murray. I am a therapist that Seton Home and Mercy Home. I work with the younger group of girls. I’ve been here for almost three years almost now, but I have been in this field working in residentials for over 10 years. And it’s one of my passions to work with kids that deal with trauma and family issues. So here I do therapy with the youth and also with their families.

– So what drew you both to want to work for a place like Mercy Home?

– Well, I went to graduate school for social work and did some internships with young people. Some of whom were incarcerated at the time. Others were in a school system and I really learned that I like working in kind of structured environments with young people in residential is definitely that. I love teenagers, I think they’re so inspiring and smart and creative and they deserve adults who can walk with them through this really challenging time of life. And especially those who’ve experienced a lot of adversity and oppression and harm from other people. I just have always felt called to be a supportive person on that journey.

– So I do have my graduate degree in social work. Residential home has been something that I’ve worked in before and I really love it. The thing that about Mercy Home that was different from the other residentials that I’ve dealt with is that the families actually come in and say. Hey, this is where we’re struggling and this is where we need help. So that is what drew me to Mercy Home.

– How have your educational and career backgrounds dealt with abuse and neglect in our kids specifically?

– Well, I mean Dana and I both come from social work backgrounds, and I think social workers historically have focused a lot on intervening in systems, communities where there’s injustice or harm that has happened. And children being a particular focus as our society has evolved over the last hundred plus years of seeing childhood as a kind of special part of development and children are not little adults that they need to be cared for and seen for who they are and in ways that are developmentally appropriate. I think as social workers that’s something that we’re called to do and to be advocates for kids, to hear them, to be aware of our own biases and our own belief systems and how those can kind of come into play when we’re working with families who are experiencing a lot of stress. We’re not here to necessarily save anyone, we’re here to partner with and to connect kids and families to resources and supports that can help kind of ease some of the strain and hardship.

– What I’m thinking about Mercy Home’s role in it. Mercy Home is to be like a respite in the midst of time of crisis. And we serve as a place to respond to a parent and a child and to be that bridge to repairing and mending relationships, examining the family content and plugging gaps, particularly in terms of mental health and their educational support. The mental health piece is the core mission of Mercy Home. While educational supports are such a huge part of a child’s development to stay on course and track and promoting successful outcomes for the future. So as we work on building the mental health piece of the child and the family, we also couple it with partnering with the school and looking at post-secondary options that will make youth feel empowered to take control of their lives and make meaningful impacts in each of these families. So I think Mercy Home being able to have such an impact in these families is one of the greatest roles that we have.

– What are some signs people should look for if they’re worried a child they know is experiencing abuse or neglect.

– Okay, so I think that is tricky. There’s a lot of signs like bruises, not bathing, strong odors, very timid, or overtly sexualized sexual behaviors that aren’t typical for their age. While all of these signs may be a sign of an abuse and neglect, they also may be symptoms of other things like other things that are going on in the home like a resistance to bathing. So it’s important for us, I think here at Mercy Home what we do is familiarize ourselves with the families. And when we familiarize ourselves with the families, we can kind of dig in deeper to understand what is really on the outside of all of this and what is going on and to kind of make sure that what we’re seeing is actually what we’re seeing, or if there’s something else that we can actually put into place to help them with what they’re dealing with.

– Dana, as you were saying that I was thinking some of the things that you look for, like a change in mood, athletic behavior, trouble sleeping, changing eating habits, or increase of risky behavior, like including substance use. Some of that’s also analogous to adolescents. So it’s not necessarily something that’s always connected to a problem. It’s part of a developmental phase. So that’s where like you said, Dana, knowing the youth and the families and knowing when something seems off or different, or if there’s some fear associated with certain people or environments. Like asking questions about those things and just being aware of changes but not over assuming that something is happening because it could also, it could be just like I said, part of being an adolescent and going through like normal phase of life. But certainly if there are marks or visible signs and that sort of thing, that’s something that you wanna pay attention to.

– ‘Cause also I feel like when we jumped to conclusions as well, it can also be detrimental and harmful to the families and we won’t be able to give them the right support that they need during that time.

– Do you, ’cause I’m guessing you can’t ask directly. How do you kind of broach this topic if you see the signs?

– Well, I think you could ask directly. I mean, it’s sort of like if you see something, say something but I think there’s ways to do it that communicate that you’re not there to get them in trouble or their family’s in trouble. But just to say, you know what? I’m noticing seems a little different or you seem concerned about this, or you’re more withdrawn or depressed than usual. Like is there something going on that I can help you with?

– No, I agree. So if it was a kid and I keep seeing a kid like having a bruise or something like that. Say we’re at a school and we’re school social workers and I see a kid coming in with a different bruise every day. I would kind of like meet with that kid and ask the kid like. Hey, today I see that you have a bruise on your arm and yesterday you had a bruise on your eye. Can you tell me what happened? Just simple as that.

– What role does Mercy Home play in protecting kids from abuse and neglect?

– A few things that come to mind for me is that we’re pretty intentional about teaching kids about boundaries and how to advocate for themselves, how to ask for help kind of how to stay safe in challenging situations. So number of kids come to us not knowing much about their own personal space or their personal power to say no, or to say like that there needs to be permission involved with any sort of touch or more intimate interactions. So I think we do a pretty good job of educating kids about that and giving them opportunities to practice.

– So obviously talking about child abuse and neglect can be really uncomfortable for many of us. Can you tell us why discussion and awareness is so important even for people who don’t work in therapy situations like Mercy Home?

– I think first and foremost, child abuse is more common than we want to think or believe it is. So, yeah, in our setting, it’s pretty prevalent among the young people we work with because that’s the population we have. But out in the world there’s a lot more people who’ve experienced this stuff than sometimes we know or want to think about. So the ACEs study for those of you who are aware of that, which stands for the adverse childhood experiences study showed that I think like 60 plus percent of people that they studied had at least one adverse childhood experience. And a lot of them had four or more which then equated to negative health outcomes. So this is not like some small subset of our country or society that this stuff is happening to. It’s pretty widespread. And if we don’t name it or kind of put it out there or show that we’re open to talking through it, it kinda pushes people into the shadows and reinforces shame that people experience as a result of experiencing abuse. And one of the things that a mentor of mine taught me was that we need to work to become what he called askable adults, who are adults that like Dana just described. When you see something, you pull someone aside and say. Hey, I’m concerned I noticed something’s different. And even if they don’t wanna tell you in that moment to say, I’m always here. I am here for you, I see you and I will support you. So we have to be the brave ones as grownups to put things on the table with kids and with each other to get these conversations started so that people aren’t living in these isolated places of silence or shame.

– So has the pandemic made it harder to identify abuse. And have you seen an uptick in abuse since the pandemic?

– The pandemic I think what I’ve seen it has isolated a lot of families. A lot of families have been dealing with a lot of like depression. I’ve also seen a lot of families deal with suicidal ideation. There’s a lot of things that are going on. And then while that is going on, you have to remember that there’s not a lot of awareness of the things that are going on in the families that right now because of the fact that these kids are not in school. So a lot of these things would be caught in school of what is going on in these families. But because we don’t have that right now. And I think that’s how the pandemic kinda like actually plays in that part. When all of these families feel very overwhelmed they kind of don’t have that outlet, and that kid doesn’t have that outlet either to step away from the family and kind of be in the school setting which they feel kinda give them a release. So both the parent and the child and I think that’s how the pandemic has impacted a lot of families.

– Yeah, and kind of the separation from extended family members and friends and other support systems, I’m guessing is increasing stress levels in households too. I mean, Dana, you’re on the front lines in a way that I’m not. So I’m sure that you could speak to this more than me, but I’ve done talking to people and reading about it. And it does seem like that isolation, the pressure cooker of the stress from the pandemic but also everything else that’s going on in our world and country and the loss and the trauma of kind of watching the news can create some kind of volatile environments. It is a concerning dynamic.

– Have you guys made a point to check in virtually with a lot of families, even if they are transitioned out?

– Yes, I do for myself. A lot of my families have a hard time letting go. So I check in with my families a lot virtually. If they don’t like virtually it’s a phone calls, but a lot of virtual. And then during the time that Mercy Home kind of was like closed down a little bit and we were doing therapy virtually. So we also did therapy virtually in the beginning when we were unable to be around the kids.

– Yeah, I heard a lot of stories from therapists around that time when they were doing more virtual sessions that families were reaching out even more during the pandemic than they were when the kids were actually on site. And that families where we’re relying on therapists and other coworkers to help diffuse situations in the home and to almost act as like crisis intervenors, which is not necessarily the usual day-to-day of the therapist. But I think it’s kinda great that family saw therapists and Mercy Home staff as a resource in those really tough times where things were getting heated at home and they would reach out for that support and intervention to calm things down.

– Yeah, it’s great to hear that they trust the Mercy Home staff to reach out to. So you both touch a bit on physical abuse, but can you talk about the effects of emotional abuse and do we treat those differently or similarly?

– Physical abuse like you mentioned is more kind of on the surface. Perhaps you might see evidence of that in a way that you might not always see as obviously with emotional abuse or neglect. I always say it’s not a contest in terms of which one is worse or which one’s most harmful because it depends on kind of the individual experience and what’s going on. But one of the things that I learned about neglect from Dr. Bruce Perry who’s a world renowned child psychiatrist that we’ve learned a lot from at Mercy Home is that he talks about neglect being especially difficult for developing brains and for young children and children age that we work with young people when they don’t have that presence of adult caretakers and just people to guide them, rock them, spend time with them, love them and make them feel safe. That is really tough on the developing brain, which kind of leads to the sense that the world is not safe. And I need to just focus on protecting myself as opposed to developing all the other wonderful parts of who I am. So that’s sometimes what we see here is young people who early on in their lives experienced some neglect or potentially emotional abuse. And now they’re trying to kinda catch up and we can provide that safe haven for them where they don’t have to worry about their safety. We teach them that they don’t have to ’cause they don’t stop worrying about it once they come here, and help them kinda develop other aspects of themselves. But emotional abuse, when I was thinking about it I think it can lead to low self-esteem, self-confidence issues. Sometimes it can express itself through self-harm or eating disorders or some other more like destructive behaviors because of that low self worth. And that’s kind of the only way people sometimes know how to express themselves.

– I think that we see more emotional abuse and neglect and sometimes it comes out of poverty or sometimes it comes out of like lack of emotional support from the parent system. And sometimes it comes out of the impact of early family separation. Early family separation is a huge contributor to the trauma we see in the children. It can be definitely detrimental to attachment.

– Yeah, absolutely. Those attachment issues are really serious and it’s kind of a tough thing to come up against at Mercy Home. But I think we’ve learned a lot over the years about how to support kids with attachment challenges and to support parents. Because like you said, Dana, a lot of this stuff is intergenerational. So it’s not just one day a parent woke up and decided to be abusive to their kids. It’s often something that has been repeated in cycles that’s rooted in bigger systems of inequality, oppression, lack of resources and stress. So it’s a very big, complicated issue, but it is important for us to make sure that we engage families in what we’re doing to give them the opportunity to heal and learn and grow and cope too. How does Mercy Home help kids cope with the trauma of abuse and neglect?

– I think that’s my favorite part, therapy. I think that we help them deal with that through therapy, also giving their family support. It’s also like bridging that gap between whatever is going on in the home with them and their parents and kinda seeing them progress and grow together which is the most beautiful thing as a therapist to see that happen with a family. Where they come in and they’re very distressed and there’s a lot of things going on. And then years or months later, you’re able to see them actually come together and communicate better so that the stress is less. Or they be able to communicate their feelings and talk about their feelings and have that. Which I always say is one of my favorite things is like that speaker listener. So I think that is the one of our number one things that we have here is that we have therapy and it’s a therapeutic environment to help these families deal with all the stressors that they have.

– Yeah, we also teach kids about their feelings, about their energy. We help them kind of notice when they start to feel overwhelmed or triggered by something and then give them options to experiment with different ways to calm down. So every young person has kind of their own set of coping skills that we keep track of within the program so that the whole team knows what the young person needs when they start to get upset. And so we can remind them to listen to their music or get under the weighted blanket or go take a walk around the block. Whatever it is that kinda helps them get back to a place where they can be effective and connected. Those are things that teams are working really hard to identify and teach kids about and help them practice while they’re here.

– What steps can a listener take to reduce the instances of child abuse in their own communities?

– I think awareness for sure that this is prevalent. There’s different statistics out there but it’s common enough that we should all know about it and kinda have our eyes and ears open. And then like I said, being that askable adult. Showing kids that you’re not afraid to have tough conversations, that you’re willing to talk about subjects that might be really hard to talk about and that you’re there for them and you’re not gonna judge them.

– I was like making the family feel that way too. I mean, if it’s a mom that’s been stressed and I’m not giving any excuses. But if it’s a mom that’s stressed as a single parent and there’s all these things that are going on and she doesn’t know what to do and then she doesn’t have any tools. It’s important for you to familiarize yourself with that family and understand what’s going on in that family. What’s going on under that umbrella where they may need assistance to help them cope through all of these emotions and everything that is going on.

– Thank you so much for joining me and being advocates for our kids and families. I really appreciate you just being candid and talking openly about this. I think it’s super important.

– Thanks for the opportunity.

– Thank you.

– Thanks for listening to Around Our Home. Thank you to Emily and Dana for joining us today to help raise awareness about child abuse and actions we can take to make sure that all children can grow up safe from abuse and neglect. Be sure to visit to join the conversation, access the show notes and read more about what’s going on Around Our Home on our blog. Don’t forget to follow us on social media by searching @MercyHome. If you have any questions, please email us at Please like, subscribe and share this podcast with your colleagues, friends and family. Mercy Home for Boys & Girls is a solution for kids in crisis and we hope this podcast will motivate you to support our mission. My name is Christine Nikolich and this is Around our Home.

Welcome to Around Our Home Podcast, a show about the impact Mercy Home for Boys & Girls has on kids and families in need in the Chicago community. Each episode you’ll hear informative interviews, as well as supportive tips and strategies that you can use in your daily life to become a happier, healthier version of yourself.

#9 – See the Signs: Recognizing and Preventing Child Abuse

In this episode, Christine Nikolich interviews Emily Neal, Mercy Home’s Vice President of Organizational Development, and Dana Firmin-Murray, a therapist at Mercy Home. Both Emily and Dana have spent years working with young people, helping them heal from trauma they’ve experienced while growing up. For Child Abuse Prevention Month, Christine sat down with them to discuss the signs a child may be experiencing if they’ve been abused, how that abuse affects them, and steps we can all take to prevent it from happening

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