Fifty years ago, long before April became National Child Abuse and Prevention Month, few people recognized child abuse as a public concern. Little was done, and few organizations dealt with it.
In the fall of 1969, I visited my Santa Barbara family. An old-style black phone sitting on a chair in our unused dining room caught my attention. Its handwritten sign puzzled me: “Do not answer!” I knew our mom, Claire Miles, put it there, but why?
As a former nurse, she knew many children suffered severe trauma. Through the years, my anesthesiologist father, Dr. Harold B. Miles, often talked about treating emotionally miserable children when working in the emergency room. They would have unexplainable injuries such as severe bruises, broken bones, head wounds and/or burns — some recent, but many older. Families would claim them as nasty results from falls, accidents or worse.
I once asked, “What happens to those kids?” Dad said, “The parents won’t talk about it, and legally we aren’t allowed to step in and do much.” Doctors and nurses were frustrated.
Late one night in 1968, a distraught 19-year-old was overwhelmed as a worker, college student and new father. While studying, his 8-week-old kept crying and distracting him. The baby would not shut up, so he shook him and fatally broke his neck. The assigned social worker, a friend of Mom’s, told her what the father said during his trial: “I had nowhere to turn.”
Shortly after, a local person told Claire Miles, “What goes on behind someone’s front door is nobody’s business.” She was even more convinced that our community needed to establish a treatment and prevention nonprofit organization. It became known as Child Abuse Listening Mediation (CALM), well known and highly appreciated today.
Since little was recognized back then, Claire Miles and supporters planned to start the nonprofit organization, but the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors denied CALM’s request.
Mom took action and ran a month-long “Personals” ad in the Santa Barbara News-Press. “Anyone knowing about child abuse in Santa Barbara should call Mrs. X anonymously.” That black phone in the dining room received nearly 40 calls from people, half who knew about problems and half who needed help. They asked what could be done.
She wrote to national columnist Ann Landers about CALM’s mission to prevent abuse. Landers printed it and became bombarded with 1,600 letters from across the nation about such traumas.
Mom then flew to Denver and met with Dr. C. Henry Kempe, a University of Colorado pediatrician, who had written a pioneering article in 1962, “The Battered Child Syndrome.” He emphasized that a battering parent most likely had been abused as a child, physically or psychologically, and continued the syndrome. “Change is possible; the cycle can be broken,” he wrote.
Three major reasons for abuse and trauma were recognized: families facing isolation, parents themselves having suffered child abuse, and the stress of modern society. As a result, CALM began to treat and prevent abuse.
By June 1970, CALM was formed with supporters (the Santa Barbara Medical Society Auxiliary, the local medical world, and residents) and — yes! — a grant from the Board of Supervisors allowing their nonprofit status.
CALM became the first child abuse prevention organization in the nation. Instead of removing abused children from homes and sending parents to jail, CALM supported abusive parents, who were also stressed and needed help.
Early on, the agency focused on four work efforts. Director Enid Pike and two assistants answered the 24-hour hotline phone (there were no cellphones or answering machines then) and referred callers to services, medical options and personal help. Trained volunteers dealt with traumatic problems and domestic violence.
CALM workers visited schools to connect with abused students and to train teachers to recognize children with trauma. Two professionals offered therapy: clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Meisel and pediatrician Dr. Nils Bolduan.
Dr. Meisel recently looked back: “My memories dwell on needed services and our relationship with the judicial system, which frequently ended up referring cases for service rather than legal proceedings. Apart from direct services, our early development and success was driven by our supportive and generous community.”
CALM remains the only Santa Barbara County agency focusing on childhood trauma, even more desperately needed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. California has 148 child abuse nonprofit organizations.
When asked back onto the CALM Board of Trustees four years ago, I was impressed with the organization’s growth during the past 50 years. Today, CALM’s mission is to prevent childhood trauma, heal children and families, and build resilient communities throughout the county, and is led by Alana Walczak. president and CEO.
During the past year alone, CALM has served 60% more clients than in previous years. The effects of the isolation and hidden nature of child abuse during school closures is leading to increased need for trauma treatment and mental health services across the board. Closed schools have made it more difficult to identify abused children.
Through it all, CALM was there to help. It has three offices across the county and therapists embedded in Santa Barbara Unified School District elementary schools as a resource for children and teachers, and it partners with more than 75 local organizations to train and develop community-based support systems for struggling families.
From the beginning, the CALM Auxiliary has grown and helped CALM serve an amazing number of children and families who need it the most. The Auxiliary also has helped support the staff, increase fundraising and get information out into the community.
Since Claire Miles founded CALM, research has found far more information about childhood trauma. Important is Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), an effective way to identify 12 dangerous risk factors that can affect children throughout their lives. If a child suffers three of them, such as alcoholism/drugs, domestic violence, neglect, or sexual abuse, they are recognized and treated.
If not noticed, those children can end up with a shorter life span, poor education, worse health issues into aging and less chance to have a successful work career.
CALM has grown in 50 years from a passionate grassroots organization helping thousands of family members make their lives positive and special. Reducing trauma allows children to grow into a thriving and comfortable adulthood — a legacy my mom, Claire Miles, left for all of us.
— Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.