April is in it's last few hours here on the east coast, and with it, Child Abuse Awareness month. April 23 I hosted my sixth annual Speak Out Rochester, which is a day for survivors of child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence to tell their stories through all means of creativity imagianable. While the turnout wasn't what I wish it were, we sure did get every means of creativity imagianable- poetry, prose, music, dance, and visual art. The event takes a lot out of me, but I've never regreted doing it. Every year I meet interesting people, hear interesting voices, learn, feel and grow. And most years I get to feel like I'm making a difference, and that's not a trifiling feeling.
This year I got absolutely NO news coverage for the event. When I do get news coverage, it doesn't increase attendance much, but I think the fact I didn't get any is interesting in itself. People always say "we've got to do something about child abuse", but apparently whatever that "something" is, it isn't "think deeply". Stories about a specific instance of child abuse still shock and outrage us, and comentary about those cases always includes things like "someone needs to inflict some sort of torture on those parents". Never mind the fact that we've known how to prevent the majority of non-sexual child abuse for over 30 years, we simply choose not to do it. I think most people find the idea of child abuse being preventable hard to swallow, especially those people who refuse to think deeply about the subject. And to believe that we can prevent it, but don't, is a very unsettling idea. But it's absolutely true. It was a re-victimization for me to learn about it in college. For me, it was almost as powerful a realization as the night my uncle begged me for sex in front of my parents, and my parents did nothing to stop him. I was learning, again and again in different ways, that no one in our society cares enough to stop children from being hurt.
I've grown up a bit since then. I have surrounded myself with people who do care to do what can be done to prevent child abuse. And I've thrown myself at that work. I've seen a few good bils get passed, and I've seen programs that work be preserved through budget-years of record adversity. It's not entirely a lack of compassion or empathy, although there is some of that. It's mostly a lack of knowledge, of insight, and of belief that this can get better.
Two personal notes- somewhere on the petition site, I have a petition to make the damn Michigan senator who proposed forcing foster children to wear clothing from thrift stores to cut his own salary and make up the difference by purchasing suits at thrift stores. Obviously, I don't expect this to happen, but the petition also mentions that if foster kids are proving expensive for Michigan, Michigan had best invest money in primary prevention, which will keep kids out of foster care. If you want to sign it, publicize it or distribute it, please do! Also, my book is up for sale at a wonderful not-for-profit, and if anyone is interested in purchasing a copy, here it is
Healing through creativity is an organization dedicated to helping survivors succeed in their creative endevors. A portion of all sales proceeds I generate from their site goes back to them. I'm hoping that soon the organization I volunteer for will put my book up for sale on their site, and then they'll get a cut of sales. And I will write at least 30 blogs about children's issues as soon as I can. And after I finish with that, I'll write some more about children's issues, as well as whatever else strikes my fancy.
Let's face it. Most people are never going to be able to do something big and dramatic to help an abused child, and most of us will never take a huge, dramatic role in changing a law, starting a not-for-profit, rescuing a child, or anything worthy of a Oxygen-network made-for-TV movie. And that's OK. There's lot and lots that we can do to help end child sexual abuse, and non-sexual abuse for that matter. Things like learning the facts, voting, and empowering survivors make a huge difference, it's just that boundless change is harder for us to percieve. It's also bigger and, at the end of the day, more important.
If you want to learn almost everything there is to know about child sexual abuse, go to www.darkness2light.org, the best organization out there in terms of CSA education.
To learn from survivors, and support them a little financially, two excellent sites are
Here's a link to purchase the Stop Child Molestation Now book. If every American citizen read this, this nation would be an unrecognizably better place in ten years.
Part two of my two-part series about why unprecedented public hatred isn't enough to stem the problem of child sexual abuse.
3) Willful ignorance- this is a multi-faceted issue. People on the street have a desire to know a certain amount about child sexual abuse, but no more than that. The media has gotten the hint, and provides us with as much of what they think we want as they think we'll consume, and that's part of the problem.
I think people like hearing lurid stories about sexual abuse because it makes them feel better about their own families. "I'm not sure how good of a parent I am, but I know for damn sure that this has never happened under my roof. As many mistakes as I've made, I've never done that to my kids." So dramatic stories about sexual abuse saturate the news. And if the stories involve the uber-dramatic elements of kidnapping or trafficking, all the better. Never mind the fact that most instinces of child sexual abuse don't involve kidnapping, human trafficking, or even criminal prosecution (more on that later). Publishing houses have learned that we love hearing stories about celebraties who have survived sexual abuse, and their memoirs will get published easilly, their manuscripts bought at a good price. And these certainly make for an interesting read, one that can teach the reader a thing or two about the crime. A few non-celebraties have managed to sneak into the commercial part of this market (think Augusten Burroughs). Back in the 1970's, when CSA was being dragged out from our culture's closet, and people were being confronted with the fact that this actually happens, each and every published survivor's story was contributing enormously to changing the public's consciousness. But here we are fourty years later, and the media still think we're most interested in hearing stories about celebraty abuse survivors and little else. Well, what else is there? First, there are plenty of non-famous abuse survivors out there. And if they try to get their stories published, the conventional publishing industry will say, in no uncertain terms, that they are not intersted. There are many literary agents who will say on their websites or in their bio's "not interested in abuse stories". Survivors who want to tell their stories end up getting sucked into self-publishing, which in general I think is a predatory practice. It can work well, but the system is stacked so that it usually doesn't work well for anyone except the publishing company. But in the last 40 years, a lot has been learned about every facet of child sexual abuse. Dr's Able and Harlow wrote a book, called "The Stop Child Molestation Book", that does an amazing job at explaining pedohilia and the dynamics of child sexual abuse to lay people. And they self-published it, presumeably because they couldn't find a conventional publisher. This book teaches people why and how child sex abusers do what they do, and how to keep your kids safe. What parent wouldn't want to own that? If people knew this book was out there, they would buy it. And it would change the world. But the publishing industry has managed to styme that, and I personally think it has blood on its hands for that.
Even among survivors, I see a lot of ignorance about pedophiles, including lots of belief that pedophilia isn't a mental illness. If we choose to believe that pedophilia isn't a mental illness, it must only be perpetuated by really terrible people. Which, sadly, brings us to #1 on my list of why we haven't been able to do more to solve this problem.
#4- So many windmills to tilt at- Sexually abuseing children is a bad thing. Almost every American you meet will agree with that, and if they don't, don't let them babysit for you! It's such a bad thing, we need to really punish people who do it. So let's make the laws tougher. It's still happening? Let's make them tougher, still. It's still happening? Let's make sure that the public can access lists of people who've sexually abused children. It's still happening? How can that be?
Here's my Care2 Confession- I'm a member of as many "make the laws tougher" groups on Care2 as I can find. Not because I really believe this is the answer, but because I want to connect with people who are passionate about the issue. And, the idea of serious punishment for these people is appealing, especially to someone who is a survivor. But let's look at why punishment has been letting us down for the last 40 years. One reason is that kids rarely disclose their abuse at its onset. Often, they don't disclose until they're adults, and in that case, in about half of all states, they run into statutes of limitations that styme their quest for justice. If a child doesn't disclose abuse until months or years after its onset, judges and juries are already going to be suspicious. Since most children are sexually abused by someone they care about deeply, and their disclosure causes that person to disappear from their life, and causes their family all sorts of grief and misery, they usually recant their story. And that really makes judges and juries suspicious. There usually is no medical evidence of child sexual abuse. There usually aren't witnesses, although now that most American's have cell phones with cameras and video capacity in their clutches most of the time, more images of child rape are showing up there, which does help prosecuters. And most of the defendents in these cases are likeable, and they often don't have any criminal records. So take the inherient "flimsyness" of what the child is saying, the lack of corroborating evidence, and the inherient reluctance of people to believe that "nice" people can do something so wrong, and you get a negligable chance of conviction. Prosecutors know this, and are often willing to take a conviction for the tiniest little thing, often endangering the welfare of a child, in order to stick anything, at all, on the offender. They figure locking the offender up for a few weeks is better than nothing at all. The maximum sentance in this case is completely irrelevant- if the prosecution knows there's no chance of a conviction, it doesn't matter what the maximum sentance is. CPS is able to function a little differently, since they're not a law enforcement entity (see one of my earlier blogs). They can indicate an adult of an alligation of sexual abuse, and keep that adult from having further access to the child they abused. That adult will be listed in the state's central registry of child abusers, and places that employ people to work with children or other vulnerable people can look up candidates on that registry. But not everyone on the street can, which is why we have Megan's Law. But I think I've already pointed out the biggest weaknesses of Megan's Law- it only represents the minute percent of offenders who get convicted in criminal court, and most people won't look up someone who "seems nice" in it- especially people in their family or circle of friends.
In the first half of this, I mentioned the gentleman I met in October who asked me if I thought anyone could do anything to actually stop child sex abuse. Well, last week, when I was setting up another display at the public market, I saw him again. He proudly said that he kept the literature about Prevent Child Abuse NY that I had given him six months ago, and was refering struggling parents he knew to their helpline (1-800-Children). We didn't have a conversation quite as philosophical as the first time, but we didn't need to. He was convinced that parents can be helped, children can be helped, and he can play a role in it. And that was enough for both of us.
Six months ago I set up a table at the local farmer's market to promote Prevent Child Abuse NY. That day, a man came up to me and started asking me questions about child sexual abuse. He told me parts of his life story- suffice it to say it was very unenviable. And before he left, he asked me if I really thought I could do anything to stop child sexual abuse, as it has been going on through the earliest glimmers of Western civilization. I was at a loss, I must admit, but finally I said I believe a difference can be made, and that my life is much better and more purposeful because I believe that.
Well, this fellow's question did make me think. Child sexual abuse is probably the most deplored crime in our culture. We are constantly pushing the boundries of our constitution to control it, by starting registries like Megan's law, Civil confinement, and the efforts that were made to censor "A Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure" in November. And there is some evidence that we are having some success in decreasing all forms of child abuse, as federal numbers and NYS data (which is all I look at, as that's where I live). But we are still talking about a crime that, at 25% of girls being victimized and 15% of boys before their 18th birthday, is beyond pandemic.
I'm going to break this down into a few blogs, because frankly, I'm a busy woman. But here are some of the reasons the crime of child sexual abuse is so prevelant in our society.
1) The case of the likeable criminal- Most children will be sexually abused by someone both they and their parents like and trust. I think parents read that fact, nod vacantly, and don't really absorb it. What it means is that we're capable of liking someone who does something absolutely terrible to someone we love. Very likely, that person we love is a part of our family. Granted, the people most likely to murder us are people we know, too, but other than domestic violence (which is not to be dismissed by any means, as it is a very significant cause of death for young women), they aren't likely to be people we are terribly close with. And murder isn't nearly as common as child sex abuse. I think it is very, very hard for people for whom child sex abuse isn't a big part of their life to wrap their mind around the fact that betrayls this bad are even possible. If people really don't believe this can happen to them, they don't need to worry about it.
2) Sweeps week- In the 1980's, child sexual abuse was a huge deal. And while plenty of experts were out there, telling accurate, evidence-based truths about the crime, there were also a few stranger abductions happening. And those got much, much more publicity. It was easier for people to swallow the big bad stranger snatching their child away from them than it is for them to believe their spouse or relative is going to do it. And people tend to swallow that which is easy. What did we get out of that? We got a lot of information dispersed about preventing something which is increadably uncommon. And we had an excuse to not try and think about something which was much more unplesant, but also more likely. And FYI, right now I think the human-trafficing movement is going to supplant the knowledge-base we're accumulating about child sexual abuse prevention. Why would the media run a story about "regular" old child sexual abuse when we have human trafficking to report on? Never mind the fact that the majority of people in the United States who are trafficked for sexual slavery are child sexual abuse survivors who ran away from their abusive homes, hoping to find something better and missing the mark very badly. I don't want to sound insensitive to human trafficing victims. But I do feel that treating this crime as though it happens in a vacume, without roots in larger societal problems, is ultimately going to be counter-productive to all facets of work against CSA.
Part two will be forthcoming. I need a break, my computer needs a break.
It's impossible for me to talk about my volunteer work with Prevent Child Abuse NY in public for more than ten minutes without someone telling me some horror story about a CPS investigation gone wrong. I volunteer for an organization that seeks to prevent child abuse from happening in the first place- what's known as Primary Prevention. But, as is so common in our culture, something that works well and painlessly rarely gets noticed or mentioned, while the blood train-wrecks, rare as they are, get all the attention. A huge part of what CPS does is viewed as a bloody train wreck to someone.
Since most of us will, at some point, find ourselves wondering if we should call CPS, I think I'll use a list of the most common misconceptions I hear and questions I'm asked when the topic of CPS comes up.
1) One time I saw someone haul off and hit their little toddler in the grocery store. Should I have called CPS?- No. If a child is being abused in front of your eyes, call the police. They have to respond immediately. CPS usually has 24-48 hours to start an investigation, which isn't going to work if you're watching child abuse in a public place, where the abuser is about to hop into their car and disappear. CPS is part of your county's Department of Social Services, not part of the police, although the two entities can work closely together at times. As for hitting a toddler in the grocery store- corporal punishment is legal, but the line is always drawn at the point where the blow causes lasting pain, damage or injury. Some jurisdictions also prohibit hitting a child anyplace other than their backside, or with anything other than an open hand. So, any kind of hitting that leaves welts is considered abusive. Hitting a very small child anyplace about the head or face is a bad idea. If your insinct is that you are witnessing an act of child abuse, it's probably worth picking up the phone. But remember, if the child is in immediate danger, call the police, not CPS.
2) I called CPS on my neighbor. They didn't do anything. Now what?- When you call CPS, they need to start in investigation within 24-48 hours (timeframes may varies by state and county). Sometimes that investigation is simply a CPS worker calling the adult the claim is being made against and trying to see if the claim has any veracity at all (for example, did the caller leave the right family and phone address?). At some point, credible claims are investigated in person. What the investigator is looking for is evidence that the report that was called in to the hotline actually happened. They are also going to keep their eyes open for other things that are going on in that household. Unless they have reason to believe the children are in immediate risk of death or serious harm, they are not going to be removed from the house. The caseworker will give the parents a list of things they think the parents need to improve- that might include things like "get some food in this house", "stop leaving your kids unattended",or "go into rehab". Depending on the jurisdiction, CPS may provide the families a varying amount of help solving these problems. There is supposed to be follow-up by CPS, to see how the family is doing, but how much follow-up they can provide varies widely by jurisdiction. If, after the investigation concludes, CPS believes the act that someone called the hotline for was committed, the adult who committed it will be "indicated". This means their name is placed on a list of people who have been indicated of abusing children. It will keep the from doing some things like being able to be foster parents, open a day care, and possibly get other employment with children. But they aren't necessarially going to get arrested, as there is a different standard of proof required. Think of the difference between civil and criminal trials. For most non-sexual abuse, CPS simply won't bother trying to press criminal charges on the family.
4) My neighbor's son's friend's wife is a social worker. Can't I just call them and tell them what's going on?- No. Informing a "social worker", a term that can mean lots of different things, about possible child maltreatment isn't the same as calling your state's reporting hotline. There is a very good chance that information given to a "social worker", and not reported to the central hotline, will never go where it needs to go and an investigation will never happen. Besides, the hotlines exist so that you don't need to go through the trouble of getting the number for your neighbor's son's friend's wife!
5) I want to make a call against someone in my family, but that means I'm saying they're a bad mother, and I can't do that. - In my personal life, I've made calls against people who I think are good parents, but they are willing to ignore all their instincts and all advice by doing one intensly stupid thing. That thing can be spending time with an abusive partner, a sex offender, or going on a drug binge. No, I don't relish the thought of calling CPS on someone I know, like and respect. But I also don't relish the prospect of going to a funeral where a tiny little casket is lowered into the earth. I don't relish living with the guilt that would haunt me. And I am not capable of deluding myself into believing that consiquences that grim cannot befall someone I know.
6) CPS took a child away from a loving home- Unfortunately, most of the time when CPS removes a child, they are taking them away from a loving home. John Lennon got it wrong- love is not all you need, at least when it comes to raising kids. Even the most abusive of parents usually express some love for their children. And even the most abused children usually feel some love for their parents, and are reluctant to leave their care. Children are not removed from custody unless they are at a huge risk for death or serious harm. Removing a child is a bad thing all the way around. Foster care isn't a great system- I blogged a few days ago about a little boy who got killed by his foster-mother's boyfriend. But leaving a child in a home where their life or safety is in real danger isn't acceptable, either. Every time a child dies from abuse, and their family was involved in CPS, as many people call for blood from the CPS worker as from the abusive family.
In this series of blogs, I'm trying to play the role of educator. In this one in particular, I'm trying to stick up for CPS, because it's the system we have, and I think it can work better if more people understand how to make it work better. But let me tell you, I've had some horrible experiences with CPS. They tend to be very understaffed and over worked. As such, their workers tend to burn out, and they tend to be desperate enough that they'll hire anyone. The culture within a particular county's CPS can become absolutely toxic, and the workers who come in full if idealisim don't last. As much as I've laid out an outline for how the system is supposed to work, I know it doesn't always work this way. I also know that when I'm hearing an enraged, grieving parent tell their side of the story, I'm hearing just that- one side of a story. This is why I pour myself into helping the cause of Primary Prevention. The less abuse we have out there, the less we all need to worry about CPS making mistakes.
April is child abuse prevention month. The ribbon color for child abuse prevention is dark blue (we wouldn't be a cause if we didn't have a ribbon, right?). Throughout the nation, people concerned with the prevention of child abuse are doning blue ribbons and setting up tables in malls, farmer's markets, grocery stores and any other place that will have us, to pass out ribbons, literature and try to remind people of the prevelance of child abuse, the importance of preventing it, and the role each and every one of us can play in protecting children.
I just got back from a beautiful day outside at the farmer's market, where I got my first sunburn of the year and got to interact with the masses about this most important of topics. I don't usually relish tabeling, but today was great. What follows are some of the highlights of my tabeling exeriences. Hopefully, this will provide readers with some entertainment, and perhaps impart a little etiquite.
Don'ts 1) "Will you watch my kid for a minute?"- Really? You are entrusting your flesh and blood to the care of a perfect stranger. True, I'm in a public place, true, I'm promoting the prevention of child abuse and positive parenting. But that doesn't mean you should trust me.
2) Do you know where the bathrooms are?- Yes, but what would you do the other eleven months of the year?
3) Would you call CPS for me if I tell you about this situation?- No, and here’s why- third-party calls to CPS are pretty useless. No matter what details you give, CPS is bound to want to ask questions, and if I’ve never seen the family first hand, I simply can’t answer them. If I call, and you’re standing next to me, feeding me information, why can’t you make the call yourself? I realize that the decision to call CPS, especially if your calling on someone in your own family, can be agonizing. I’ll address that in another blog. Incidently, the first time I ever set up an informational table, I was convinced that I could make a living doing third-person reporting, as there seems to be so much of a desire for it.
4) I hate you guys because you took my husband’s kids away from him…OK, I personally, have never had anything to do with removing a child from custody of anyone. I do not work for an agency that does. I volunteer for a not-for-profit that strives to prevent child abuse from happening in the first place. That NFP does not have the power to remove children from anyone’s custody. As an aside, one time I wanted to have a community open-house about child abuse, and one componant of that I was interested in was having represented was CPS. So I made some calls, and finally I got ahold of the woman who could authorize such an event. It turned out that every time in the past that they had tried to do educational outreach, people in the audience got confrontational that it traumatized the CPS workers. So they made a policy against doing educational work, thereby forcing an organization that is shrouded in misunderstanding and animosity to not be able to educate the community about their role.
5) I hate you guys because you didn’t take my neighbor’s kids away from them after I called twice!- refer to #4
6) "Daddy, what's that mean?" (as the child points to a flyer that says "preventing child sexual abuse") Dad then says "never mind". If you want to keep your child from being sexually abused, or want to keep it from ruining their life if it does happen, you need to talk to your children about what it is, who does it, and what to do if it happens to them. www.darkness2light.org is probably the best place for information about this. But I can give this advice- talk to your children about child sexual abuse a lot. Just like you talk about nutrition, fire safety, etc. Make sure the emphasis is on the abuse, not the sexual part- children need to feel comfortable setting boundries with their bodies, and they need to understand the normal boundries between adults and children. For example, forcing a child to watch an adult mastrubate, or watch pornography, can be harmful to a child, and is often something a predator will do before they attempt physical, sexual contact with a child. If someone does this to your child, you want your child to understand that this is wrong and tell you before something even worse happens. Help them understand why its wrong- no one has a right to hurt your body, adults have more power and strength than kids, sex is for two people who chose to be together in a special relationship. There are always stories about child sexual abuse in the news. Use these as jumping-off points with your kids. If you talk about this enough with your kids, you let them know that child sexual abuse happens, it isn't something shameful, and it's something you, as a parent, can handle. If your child doesn't think you can handle learning that they've been sexually abused, they won't tell you. But if you don't think that piece of knowledge is something you can handle, how do you think your child is going to cope with it, without your help?
If I'm spending time trying to help parents learn about preventing child abuse, and I see a parent thwarting my efforts, how ever unintentionally, I'm going to get a little peeved.
1) Thank you, you’re doing important work! -You're welcome! Everyone likes being thanked, as rewarding as the work is for them.
I'm a biochemist by training. When people see me involved in the world of child abuse prevention, and they learn that fun fact about me, they often ask how a biochemist ended up wearing the various hats I wear in the interest of preventing child abuse. Sometimes I answer just by saying "biochemists have souls, too!", sometimes I come up with something else non-commital, but the fact that people ask me this, again and again, has really made me think.
First of all, EVERYONE should want to prevent child abuse, and EVERYONE should do what is in their power to prevent it. Most of the most pernicious problems in America are significantly exaserbated by the effects of chid abuse. Why is health care so expensive? Obesity, smoking, excessive drinking, drug addiction, mental illness and premature births are all HUGE contributors to the cost of health care. Child abuse is strongly, strongly linked to all six of those issues. In fact, the most significant study on the life long consiquences of child abuse and other childhood trauma was performed by a doctor who was studying obesity- specifically why a certain subset of obese people cannot maintain weight loss. One of this doctor's conculsions is that child abuse/trauma survivors are more likely to die from every leading cause of death in every age bracket than their non-abused peers. That means that as teenagers and young adults, abuse survivors are more likely to die from suicide and car accidents (the leading cause of death for young people) than their non-abused peers. In middle age, abuse survivors are more likely to die from cancer and heart disease (the leading cause of death in that age bracket) than their non-abused peers. Violent crime is strongly linked to child abuse, as is early pregnancy, academic failure and life below the poverty line. To me, this cluster of facts is one example of why partisan politics doesn't work- investing in child abuse prevention seems too simple for the Right to embrace, and not punitive enough for the Left. So most of the time, no investment is made, and children continue to suffer. The bare-bones, legally mandated costs of dealing with abused children are also staggering. Child Protective Services (or what ever other acronym is used, as it varies state by state) is not cheap, nor is foster care. But both seem like the deals of the century compared to residential placement of disturbed, abused youth, which is what happens with youth who cannot succeed in either their families or foster care.
So preventing child abuse saves money. OK, got it. In the current political climate, I feel like that's all I should need to say, as austerity and penny-pinching are the new buzz-words. Children are an investment in our society's future. But somehow, I feel like if that experssion is used any more, there will be talk of children being brokered to forgien investment firms and physically stuffed in portfolios. I know when I get my bi-annual reports on my 401k's performance I don't want to see finger-paint pictures in there. There has to be a reason, besides the purely financial, why we invest in preventing child abuse. And sometimes I tell this story when I'm trying to explain why.
When I was in college, I worked two summers at a nature-oriented day camp. One rainy day the kids couldn't go outside, so the other councelors and myself were forced to take them to the interpretive nature center that was on-site. Like most people who are paid to work with large numbers of children, I got into the habbit of constantly counting them, and within an hour I was one child short. After a quick scan of the room, I found him perched at the top of the stairs, clutching giant turkey feathers in each hand. I ran up to the top of the stairs and asked him what he was doing. He told me he was about to fly down the stairs- he had been flapping his fistfulls of feathers and had felt some lift, and was sure that he was going to be able to jump from the top stair and fly safely to the bottom. I told him he was welcome to practice flying, as long as he did it from the bottom stair. He agreed, and spent the rest of the day practicing.
The other councilors were surprised that he and I came to that agreement, and they asked me why I let him do that. I thought about it for a minute, and realized I let him do it because I didn't want to be the one to tell him he couldn't fly. When a child is abused, they are told in the most overwhelming way possible that they cannot fly. When we, as individuals and as a society don't do everything possible to prevent that abuse from happening, we are all joining the ranks of those who condone breaking and bending fragile wings into useless appendiges.
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