Dr. Julia Burns shares her stories of healing child neglect and abuse
Durham-based Dr. Julia W. Burns has worked as an adult, child and adolescent psychiatrist healing trauma for more than 30 years. She was raised in Lumberton, North Carolina, and studied music and psychology at UNC and medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine. Her first book, “Momma, Who’s Babygod?,” demonstrates how prayer can influence parent-child dynamics. Her focus on healing and preventing child abuse* has informed her independent psychiatric practice and is the subject of her just released book, “Songs for the Forgotten: A Psychiatrist’s Record.” Dr. Burns was first exposed to childhood trauma in her role as medical director of a child welfare agency. She has published articles in Buddhist and trauma survivor magazines. She believes that all wounds – no matter how severe – can be healed. Following is an edited transcript of an interview with Durham Magazine’s Dan Shannon.
After working as a psychiatrist for so long, what sparked your interest in making these stories into a book? The most compelling reason was the fact that in 1992 when I was hired as staff psychiatrist of a welfare agency that served 300 children, people did not know the extent of child abuse. The first step in healing this epidemic is knowledge. And so the children sang their songs, and I transcribed and reported short verses about the many stories I had heard from my pediatric patients and their abuse. It took 20 years to put these into something coherent I could share with others.
Child abuse and neglect is such a difficult topic for people to contemplate. You say you get feedback that you are exaggerating “I can’t think about that,” people tell you. “Or, it’s too overwhelming.” How pervasive is this horror? A report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds. One in four girls are abused in childhood. One in six or one in 10 boys, depending on the source, are abused in childhood. Boys under report because of shame. Most victims are abused by a family member or someone they know.
Every year more than 3.6 million referrals are made to child protection agencies involving more than 6.6 million children.
However, you’re not sold on prison as a solution or deterrent, are you? Keeping children safe is the goal. The problem is that incarcerating perpetrators gives people a false sense of safety. More child molesters are living in our neighborhoods than in prison. That’s why a grassroots effort to educate people about how to report suspected abuse, recognize the signs of abuse, and encourage them to be bold and not ignore abuse is a better solution.
There aren’t enough beds in prisons. Prison, which happens after the event, does little to deter perpetrators. Until we understand that child molestation is an addiction that needs an active 12-step program as well as other addiction treatments, there is little hope. Interventions must also be made to educate the public about the warning signs – how and when to report abuse. It is important to support grassroots efforts spearheaded by organizations such as Darkness to Light [d2l.org] so that everyone can be involved in the solutions.
Raised in a loving home, you certainly weren’t prepared for your career battling child abuse. How did you first respond? Having had no training in childhood trauma in medical school or residency, I was so caught off guard by the extent and frequency of abuse in my pediatric patients that I turned to God for answers. If He was supreme and omnipotent, then surely, He had to have answers. I heard nothing from Him that satisfied me. My anger at the situation, the abuse stories, the perpetrators that continued to have access to the children, the lack of response from the child welfare system and God’s seeming indifference grew until I was consumed with so much rage that I made myself sick. I began to experience the same post-traumatic [stress] symptoms as my patients: anger, edginess, isolation and irritability.
How does your faith relate to your experiences as a psychiatrist? It relates to everything I do and am, including my work with trauma. Now, I know to protect myself with prayer, before and after a difficult patient. I ignored faith for years but after I was healed from a terminal illness, I began to incorporate spirituality into my practice. I started using a spiritual inventory and asked patients if they wanted spirit and prayer to be part of their treatment. I’d say about 75% said “yes,” and slowly I became more comfortable praying with and for patients. When I was sick, I undertook a two-year study of evil, including natural disasters like fires and hurricanes and illnesses such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, ALS, almost all things chaotic. I came to peace with darkness, knowing that the darkness can never overcome the light. I take my comfort in this, no matter how hard things get or how horrendous the stories.
You write in your book, “Praying frequently, I asked God for his blessings. … The worse the stories got, the more I searched scripture for answers and reasons.” God seemed absent in this drama. As my work continued, I sought another way to heal. I began writing songs and painting the children’s stories. I’ve worked for the last 20 years to shape these songs and stories into [this] book. I began to heal when I was able to admit that it was not God who abused my patients but perpetrators, many of whom had been victims of childhood trauma themselves. I realized that God wept each time. He witnessed the molestation of children and suffered with us.
Was it difficult to write some of these stories? Writing comes very easily to me. Editing is a different story. I spent years editing the stories which practically wrote themselves. Lyrics poured out like water, filling my journal, one song followed another, as the dam burst, script overflowing. I was writing about events as far back as my student years, and as recent as the day before. Usually, I was home and wrote on the computer. If I was away from home, I wrote in a journal I carried with me everywhere.
What advice would you have to practitioners and survivors interested in sharing their traumatic stories? Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying, “You are only as sick as your secrets.” You must tell as best you remember, and you must tell someone you trust who’ll believe you. That is the first step in healing.
How can we encourage people to listen to these uncomfortable stories of abuse and neglect? We must learn and listen. We have to let our moral compass override our fears. Often, children who are abused will not have overt signs, physically or emotionally. Common signs when they are present are disruptive behavior, sexualized acting out, academic decline, withdrawal and isolating in their room, bed-wetting, nightmares and insomnia. Others include delayed or inappropriate emotional development, loss of self-confidence or self-esteem, depression, avoidance of certain situations, such as refusing to go to school, and desperately seeking affection.
When someone confides in us about their personal story of abuse, how can we best support that person? Much in the same way that you would support them in any problem they might tell you about. First listen, then believe, and then ask the person, “How can I help you now? I believe you, and I’m so sorry this happened to you. I want to be here for you.”
How can we fight child abuse today? Recently, during a Zoom conference a teacher talked about a puppet show that was performed in her school. The children were taught about “good touches, bad touches,” who to tell, how to tell and how to say “no!” Children are usually invested in telling their story if only adults will ask, listen and believe. There are many creative ways to support children, survivors and perpetrators. Darkness to Light is an excellent resource.
Do you have a favorite quote or song from your book? Without a doubt, my favorite song is about a little girl who hides under her bedsheets:
Somebody is hiding.
She lies there.
Body wedged tight, lidless eyes press
ironed white sheets. Tiny pink
lines, theses stripes severe
wide white intervals.
Someone is home.
So she is hiding
behind the curtain, invisible. Spirits
hover and view the beating
For more information
“Songs for the Forgotten: A Psychiatrist’s Record” is available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Dr. Burns has a website, juliaburns.org, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, you should contact your local Child Protective Services (in Durham: 919-560-8424) or 911 for emergency response.