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.
OK, I'm the biggest supporter of orgin/tissue/blood/platelets/bone-marrow/miscelanous bits-and-pieces-donations you'll ever meet. I earn my living in the blood banking industry, I'm a registered marrow donor who has twice been called upon to donate, and my husband is going on the cornea-transplant list in the forseeable future. But there is NOTHING about this story that makes me smile.
First of all, I live in NY, this story happened in NY. For almost ten years I've been active in trying to persuade NY's legislator to fund child abuse prevention programs so that every high-risk family has access to them. Right now only 10% of high-risk families have access to them. By no means will this fix everything, but it'll be a great start. But in ten years, I have been unable to expand the scope of NY's child abuse prevention programs. I was able to help keep funding from being cut last year and eliminated this year, and I'm proud of that, but obviously this isn't enough.
So what happened in this story, exactly? Well, some very, very small child was either abused so horriffically in their first 17 months of life that someone noticed, notified CPS and they decided the child was in immediate danger of death or serious harm, or the mother was so unable to bond with and attach to the child that she relinquished him. Relinquishment is not easy to do in NY, as I understand it, so I'm betting it was the first scenerio. The under-17-month crowd isn't too defiant. They're awefully cute. They're barely verbal, so they're not likely to say things that enrage their parents. Potty training is a perilous time in the life of a toddler who's born into a home with parent(s) who cannot take care of them appropriately, and many a child has been beaten or burned to death as a result of an accident, but it seems very unlikely someone was trying to potty train a child this young.
Other reasons for CPS to remove a child that young from the custody of their parents would be evidence of sexual abuse, or the mother's refusal to protect the child from sexual abuse, massive parental neglect (such as leaving a very young child alone, again and again), or having the child in a home where there is no sober adult, again and again. So anyway, some pretty horriffic things happened to this little guy very early in his life. Most likely, CPS made many visits, and thought long and hard about this decision. But the decision was made. When a child is being removed from the care of their birth family, the child's grandparents must be notified and, if they are declaired fit, given the option of taking custody of the child. So since this little guy ended up in foster care, it means he had grandparents who either didn't want him or weren't fit to care for him. So into foster care he went.
I've gone through much of the trainig and rigamarole necessary to become a foster parent in New York. I never got my liscense- that may be another blog, or series thereof. But I do understand what the state looks for in a foster parent and who usually ends up interested in doing it. The training is pretty extensive, and people who've never had any other kind of parenting education and training say they've learned a lot from it. A small percentage of people who become foster parents are couples with fertility issues, who want a child very badly and are willing to do what ever is necessary to have one. In a county with a strong CPS department, these couples usually end up with very young children who's biological parents don't seem likely to get them back. They are likely to adopt the child, maybe foster/adopt another one, and then they have their family and stop being foster parents. There are a subset of people who go into foster parenting for religious reasons. These people can be great parents, but tend to butt heads with CPS over things like corporal punishment, vaccinations, respect for the child's parent's religion, and heaven help a child who identifies themself as gay. And the biggest subset of people who go into foster parenting are people who've learned about it "word of mouth"- they know someone who does it, or they were involved in the system growing up. Foster parents do get money for having these children under their roof. Not a lot, but for people used to raising children on very little money, it probably seems like a lot. I have no doubt in my mind that financial reward motivates some people to enter the system. And for a pedophile, being a foster parent is like guarding a henhouse if you're a weasle.
I can't even guess why the foster mother of this little boy got her liscense, but I am willing to guess that on some level, she wasn't healthy or wise enough to throw a dangerous man out of her life. Because people don't just beat a little child to death on their first date, nor without any hint that they have issues with violence and/or anger. Foster parents are not allowed to use any form of corporal punishment, and they learn in many different ways why brutalizing children is bad. So she knew this guy was doing something wrong. She probably told him to stop, and he probably didn't. And this probably happened again and again- that is the typical pattern. And then, the unthinkable happened.
I may end up brainstorming "would have's" and "should have's" in reguards to this case in June. When I become aware of a tragidy like this, especailly in New York, I like to think about what I could do, personally, to keep something like this from happening agian. I can do more to support organizations that seek to help abused children. I can re-commit myself to my legislative advocacy work to push New York to increase funding for child abuse prevention. Yes, it's hard to come up with funding for the program, but if we refuse to pay for it, babies die. It's that simple. And as a writer, I can try to improve the way people percieve emotionally distrubed children and foster parenting. Of course, trying to get published when you write about these subjects is not the easiest thing in the world, and that'll be the subject of another blog.
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.
I had to bury a pet snake who died over the winter today, and digging through the freshly thawed earth, seeing that first fat worm, part of me ached to plant a garden.
The first two years as a home owner, I did just that. It wasn't a terribly productive or healthy garden, but it gave me a chance to play in the dirt, which is 50% of the appeal for me. Then I joined the board of directors for an organization I had been volunteering for, and I got involved in a project in my local community called a Speak Out, which is a day for survivors of child abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault to come together and tell their stories. My involvement in that event changed my life in lots of ways, all of them good, but since the event is best done in April, child abuse prevention month, my plans for gardening were forever stymied.
I started volunteering for Prevent Child Abuse NY, the sponsoring organizatioin, because I had learned in college about the science of preventing child abuse before it happens, a science known as primary prevention. You don't need to be a genius to realize that preventing child abuse from happening in the first place is better than dealing with its consiquences. I wanted to help in the prevention of child abuse, but I didn't want anything to do with abused children, whether they were children or adults. College was a chance for me to come to terms with the fact that I was a survivor of sexual and emotional abuse. It seemed that, statistically, my life was bound to be one big train wreck, and so far I seemed to be hiding from my destiny. On some level, I feared that being around other survivors would give destiny my coordinates.
I moved through adulthood, and became a bit more confident about all parts of my life, including my past and my ability to master my future. And that's why I said "yes" when offered to help with the speak-out.
The first speak-out, I interned with a woman who had organized them for years in another state. I learned a lot, and when the day of the event came, I mostly worked set-up, break-down and registration. But I managed to watch parts of the event. What was most striking about it to me was that I got to see lots of sexual abuse survivors stand up in front of other people, tell their story, and not die. Absolutely nothing bad happened to them after they spoke. And that left an impression on me.
I interned with the senior speak-out expert for two years, and after that I was on my own. The second year I spoke at the event, and shared some of my past. At the first event I organized myself, I opened the event by shareing an anecdote about my abuse, in order to get other attendees comfortable with shareing.
I've met a lot of wonderful, interesting people because of this event. The way I see my own past abuse has changed in a thousand subtle ways. Once I got comfortable talking about my abuse, I started thinking of ways I could help other people by telling it. Soon I was incorporating my past into speeches I was giving on behalf of PCANY, and then I was able to incorporate it into testimony to the New York Legislator about the importance of child abuse prevention. Feeling that I had been able to take the uglyness of my past and use it to help prevent child abuse gave my life a new kind of meaningfulness.
I cannot imagine that I'm going to burn out from or give up on the Speak Out any time soon. And if that means I will never have time to work a garden in the month of April, well, so be it.
This is for all the survivor out there, and to everyone who wonders how survivors are made.
1) "No one will believe you if you tell"
I'd like to say "the truth is, everyone will believe you if you tell". I'm much too honest of a person to say that. Families very often are the least likely to believe a child who comes forward and speaks of abuse, especially if they are being abused by a family member. Many survivors speak of their recovery starting the moment they told someone who believed them. Word to the wise- if someone tells you they were abused, believe them. Or at the very least, tell them you believe them.
2) "You're enjoying this as much as I am"
One time I heard a survivor say "the gentler the touch, the more guilty the child". There is so much truth to that, and if I had heard that ten years before, my recovery probably would have moved a whole lot faster.
Our genitals have the same nerve endings in them early in our pre-natal development that they have when we're teenagers. That means that a particular sexual touch that causes phyiscal arousal for an adult will also cause it for a child. It doesn't mean the child is enjoying the experience, it just means the child's nervous system is working as it should. The act of being sexually abused is so overwhelming, and the child is usually so frightened and confused that they rarely cry, fight back or try to flee. Once again, this isn't consent, but a predator will interpret it as such.
Children tend to believe what they're told. And that includes the lies a sex offender uses against them. The "you're enjoying this as much as I am" one tends to cause guilt, and that can be crippling. If you're sexually active when you're A KID, you must have something wrong with you. And so starts the body hatred and so many myraid issues that sexual abuse survivors are left to deal with.
3) this is normal/natural/common
People tend to select friends who are like themselves. I don't entirely understand it, but sex offenders have been finding each other long before the internet. That's how child porn, and sometimes children, got trafficked in the "good old days". If you surround yourself with like-minded people, you start to feel normal, reguardless of how far outside mainstream society your little group is. Sex offenders want to believe what they're doing is normal and harmless, because otherwise, they're forced to believe they're pretty sick and deviant. And often, sex offenders were sexually abused as children, and they use their own predatory behavior to convince themselves that they didn't suffer at the hands of their abuser. Sometimes it's easier to build your entire world around a lie than to believe a painful truth. And sadly, child sexual abuse is "normal" in the sense that it is COMMON- 20% of all children in this country will be sexually victimized by their 18th birthday. But it's not harmless, and it's not right. Ever.
4) I'll kill you/someone in your family if you tell
Well, this one sure as hell can seem true. If someone has enough power over you to rape you, it sure seems like they can kill you. And the fact that this person with so much power shows the occassional iota of mercy can cause survivors to develop Stockholm Syndrome. Sometimes on TV you'll see a victim fiercely defending their abuser, and usually that's what's going on.
20% of kids are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. About 10% of them disclose their abuse while they're still children. If 2% of the children in America got murdered by people who sexually abuse them, we'd sure as hell hear about it. It probably does happen from time to time. That's why if a child ever discloses sexual abuse to you, you need to call the authorities, not just tell the kid's parents. Doing the right thing makes you a hero, cutting corners and doing the wrong thing can put the child in danger.
5) You're ruined now
OK, I've never heard of a pedophile acutally using this one, especially since they're usually more interested in convincing themselves and their victims that they're not doing anything wrong. But I'm paraphrasing what my mother told me. My mom told me that rape victims might as well kill themselves. And then she let my uncle rape me. Did that ever raise some questions in my young mind. But I knew, even then, that she was simply using me as a mirror with which to see herself and her wretched life. My mom was sexually abused as a child. I guessed that years before she told me. She bears every characteristic scar that survivors tend to bear.
I certainly bear some myself, but there is sooo much more to me and my life. There are so many things I've done that fill me with pride, joy, accomplishment. I have friends. There are people in this world who love me. I have tallents and skills. I have lots and lots of fun. And I keep getting better. To all you survivors out there, don't believe anyone or anything that says abuse dooms you to a life that isn't worth living. Take it from me.
Note- this is the first part of a two-part series. This part will focus on the interaction of pedophiles within families and communities. The second part will focus on the things pedophiles say to their victims.
Statistically 10% of American men, and about 3-1% of women meet the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual's criteria for being a pedophile. Other sets of statistics tell us that at least 90% of pedophiles are walking the streets at any given time- fewer than ten percent are in any sort of correctional or psychiatric institution. So this means that if you know more than ten men, there is a statistical likelyhood that you know a pedophile, even if you don't know that you do. Understanding the fact that you are likely to know a pedophile, and likely to know the victim of one, puts you in a situation where you can do some good in the life of a child. What follows is pulled both from my personal observations and those of professionals, about why and how people doubt their instincts, go down the path of least resistance, and let children get hurt.
#1) You know me- I would never do that! This is the grand-daddy of all the lies our pedophiles tell us. It is based on some psychological circuitry we all have that goes something like "I'm a good person. Therefore, I associate with good people. Pedophiles aren't good people, therefore I don't associate with them". Pedophiles who actually molest children, which the leading researchers think is most of them, are guilty of doing a reprehensible, damaging, vile act. However, most of them are also capable of holding down jobs, rooting for the same team you root for, and having plesant conversations with us. Here's another way to look at it- more than 90% of children who are sexually abused are abused by someone they and/or their families know and trust. The child's family often provides them with access to their child(ren). How many families would let someone who was clearly cruel, insane, defective or dangerous have access to their children? There are very few obvious signs that someone is sexually attracted to children. As far as I know, there are only two ways psychologists can prove someone has a significant sexual attraction to children. One involves a very long, detailed questioneer, and the other measuring the bloodflow to someone's genitals when shown pictures of children. Neither of these are things most of us subject our peers to! So suffice it to say that just "knowing" someone doesn't mean you know whether or not they are sexually attracted to children.
#2) Yes, someone accused me of doing something one time. I didn't do anything, and you know how easy it is to be accused of something like that... This isn't necessarially a lie. But, if a perspective babysitter says it, look elsewhere. If you ever hear this one, and you are aware of children being placed in this person's care, you want to learn the circumstances under which they were accussed and to what authority they were accused. Statistics consistantly show that about 10% of the accusitions of child sexual abuse that are made to the Central Register are found to be false. Most of these stem from an adult saying "so and so abused my child", rather than a child saying "so and so abused me". Most of these false accusations come from custody disputes. There are particular sub-groups of children who will fabricate accusations, and these children are usually so far gone, psychologically, that they are deeply involved with social services and psychological experts who will know how to handle these false accusations.
People who remember the 1980's, and trials like the McMartin Daycare fiasco remember the power of a crying child on the witness stand and the weight of the mantra "children don't make things like this up". And eventually we learned that, while they rarely do make accusations up randomly, unprofessional questioning methods can cause them to give inaccurate, untrue answers. What most people don't realize is that the pendulum has swung so far the other way in the ensuing thirty years that now it is almost impossible to get a trial in a case where the only evidence is the testimony of a single child. And very often in child sexual abuse cases that is the only evidence.
The more agencies investigate a claim, the more you should worry about it. If you hear that a school district, the county CPS and two different police jurisdictions have investigated someone you're thinking about hiring to fill a teaching position, that means a whole lot of people took the accusation seriously. That means that you should, too. It doesn't mean this person needs to be ostracized, harrassed or run out of town, but you probably shouldn't take the risk in hiring them. It's also important to know that very often schools and other institutions will simply relocate an employee who's accused of sexual abuse. It makes the family of the accuser happy, because it means their child is never going to have to see that person again, and the family probably doesn't understand much about their legal options- very few people do. And it spares the employer the potential community scrutiny, bad press and liability that come with a CPS or police investigation.
False accusations happen. Trained experts can usually see right through them. Cover-ups also happen. If someone says they've been falsely accused of a sexual crime against a child, ask yourself some hard questions about putting them around children. And if they say "c'mon, you know me! I'd never do that!" refer to #1.
#3) Yes, I did sexually abuse a child. I'm ashamed of it, it happened a long time ago, I've changed/quit drinking/gotten therapy, and it's not going to happen again.
People make mistakes, people can learn from them, and people can change. To some extent.
Much to my significant other's disappointment, I'm pretty sure I'm never going to wake up one day strongly sexually attracted to women. And I'm pretty sure he's not going to wake up with a strong sexual attraction to men. The change from being strongly sexually attracted to children to not being strongly sexually attracted to children would be like someone's sexual orientation changing from hetero to homosexual. There are very specific modalities of therapy for sex offenders that seek to do just this. But they aren't DIY affairs.
There are a few situations other than diagnosable pedophilia that will cause an adult to sexually harm a child, but most of them are not the kind of things that are ameloriated by sobriety, regular-old therapy, anti-depressants or any other psychological trappings that most of us have any familiarity with. Treating sex offenders is often compared to recovering from chemical addiction- long-term sobriety can be achieved, but non-abusive, recreational drinking cannot be. Someone who says "I molested seven children, I got caught, I've been through treatment, and I know better than to be around children" is more trustworthy than someone who says "I molested a child, I've changed, I'm fine".
#4) I know he's done some bad things, but I don't care. I can keep my kids safe! or this corrilary- "He and I talked. We're going to go into couples therapy. It won't happen again".
This is the lie that is believed, which is always dangerous.
There is a catagory of sex offender who will try to get access to children by living with them- by marriage, adoption or foster parenting. These men will often try to marry the most wretched woman they can find with kids. And wretched women are vulnerable to the charms and resources that men can bring. Add in "traditional family values" that make any woman who dares raise children without a man feel like a criminal, and you have a perfect storm. Pedophiles are often as good or better at manipulating adults than they are at manipulating children. There are women who know that their current partner has sexually abused other children, who are so desperate to have what this man provides them with, that they will make themselves believe ANY excuse their partner provides in order to salve their conscious.
And the corrilary- I used to be very active on an on-line support group for sexual abuse survivors, and one survivor told a story about the day her mom caught her father abusing her. She thought it was the day of her salvation. She was so happy. And then her mother told her "we talked about it, we're going to go to marriage therapy, and if he does anything to you agian, tell me". Well, the girl felt unable to tell her mother before, and she felt much less able after that- her father used a new collection of manipulations on her. I thought that decades of increased public awareness had wiped this argument off the face of the earth. And then in raised its ugly head in a situation very close to me.
Parenting is hard work. Anyone a parent lives with will end up shouldering some of it. When one parent is running around like a chicken with their head cut off, and the other offers to bathe the kids, sooner or later the one parent is going to take them up on that offer. No parent is going to insist on their eight, twelve or fourteen-year-old child never leaving their line of sight in their own house. But the moment they do, they are vulnerable, if there is a pedophile living with them. Most acts of sexual abuse don't cause a child physical pain- so children rarely cry out during the actual act of sexual abuse. That means children can, and often are, sexually abused when their non-abusing parent is in the other room. And if the non-offending parent says they're going to install a brinks-style security system on their children's bedroom doors, the offending parent will beg, manipulate, threaten etc., until the non-offending parent backs off.
If you ever come across a family that is using either of these arguments to justify their dysfunction, and you call CPS, you're a hero.
Once upon a time there were two teenagers who eloped and had a baby boy. They came back to their home town, the husband took a low-paying job and struggled mightilly to support his family. The husband grew up with a father who was abusive to his wife, and there are indications that he was abusive to his son. There were alleged pedophiles in both the mother's and the father's families, and the one in the father's family killed himself before he could be indited for rapeing a child. Life was stressful in the household. Another child was born, a girl this time, but within a few years, the parents had split up. The boy ended up staying with his father for a few years, while the girl stayed with her mother. The mother moved in with a horriffically abusive partner, and both her children were witness to varying amounts of her abuse. At one point, the mother refused to let her son move back in with her, for fear of the damage that witnessing her abuse would do to him. The mother ultimately left the abusive partner, and her son moved back in with her. He would later describe her, at this point in her parenting carreer, as "emotionally abusive". Her now teenaged son wasn't exactly easy to live with at this point and was showing signs of clinical depression and drug use. While he was still a teenager, his mother threw him out of the house, and he bounced around from relative to relative, friend to friend, and was homeless for periods of time.
The boy floundered through his early adulthood, but found solice and pride in his musical ability. He ultimately wrote songs so full of pain and anger that they touched the heart of everyone who had been truely hurt in a very special way. He was hailed as a musical genius and innovator. He spoke out against violence against women every chance he got. He fell in love with a woman who's past was at least as horriffic as his, married her and had a daughter with her. By all accounts he was as good a father to her as he could be. By this time in his life, the illegal drugs he had been dabbling with since he was a teenager had become a major destructive force in his life. Seventeen years ago today, he took his own life.
Sadly, I think it's worth remembering Kurt Cobain's life not only to celebrate his accomplishments, but to evaluate how little we've learned about preventing the hurt and destruction that he went through as a child. His parents were young, poor and at least one of them had a clear trauma history. When Kurt was born, all science concerning child abuse and its prevention was in its infancy. Decades later, it isn't, but its prioritized and funded as though it's effects are inconsiquential. One can look through the biographical information about Kurt's life and find specific things, spelled out, that count as abuse and trauma. They find lots and lots of things that simply went wrong, instances where some guidance from someone with experience raising a child with mental illness,or who had survivied parental domestic violence and divorce could have contributed a lot to his parents' skills and decision-making processes. When a sexual abuse survivor pours through some of that information, they will recognize many, many indications that Kurt was sexually abused as a child. This hypothesis is probably unproveable, and could be very messy and complicated to research, but it shows how much ignorance is out there when it comes to recognizing child sexual abuse, even in the medical and chemical-dependency fields.
Volumes are written about the connection between creativity and mental illness. That connection might be valid, but I suspect there's another facet to it. I think the reason there are so many mentally ill, damaged creative geuiuses out there is because part of being a trauma survivor, part of being hurt badly enough to dramatically increase your odds of devolping mental illness, is you have your voice taken away from you. And some people who go through that spend the rest of their lives trying to get it back. As important and theraputic as getting that voice back can be, it isn't always enough. Child abus survivors are 1,220% more likely to attempt suicide than their non-abused peers. That's not a typo- that is a comma, not a decimal point.
As an abuse survivor who was a teenager in the 90's, Nirvana, and some of the other bands that became popular during that decade, bands that could put an aching, shattered soul into sound and words, provided me with great strength, solice and wisdom. Rather than turn April 5 into a sad day of hand-wringing and wondering "why", I want it to be a day where we decide to learn some lessons our society has been very slow to grasp.
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