In my work as a child abuse lawyer, I often come across the following questions:
Why do abused children remain silent? Why do they not report to trusted adults such as their teachers or police officers what is done to them behind closed doors?
First and foremost, sexually and physically abused kids are simply too fearful and powerless to help themselves. Untold thousands of these children will go to school today and tomorrow without telling their teachers the horrors visited upon them the night before. They will travel quietly through the day, passing police officers, neighbors and friends, never revealing the anguish of their existences. And if by chance someone asks them how they are being treated at home their response will be uniformly the same: “Okay.”
As adults we expect all human beings to escape or at least want to escape when someone injures them, but for battered children, the reverse occurs. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of child abuse is that it binds the child closer to the abuser. The parents’ threats and intimidation engender in their children not only fear but self-blame and embarrassment – all of which turn a child’s survival mechanism topsy turvy. Love and violence become so inextricably confused that even when the abuse is reported, the children will often kick and scream as they are being removed from their draconian environment by a social worker.
The other aspect that makes child abuse, especially sexual abuse, the perfect crime is that most adults continue to believe child rearing is a private matter and that adults in positions of trust such as religious figures, coaches or youth leaders would never harm a child. As a rule most adults don’t want relatives, friends or neighbors telling them how to raise their children, and in return they refuse to intervene or say something if they observe a problem with someone else’s child. While we all cherish our right to privacy, our devotion to this cornerstone of democracy is strangling the lives of thousands of children every year. Abusive parents and trusted adult leaders thrive on isolation, and that is exactly what society gives them.
Daily, people turn a blind eye to the screams, bruises and frightened eyes of battered and molested children. Their reactions actively reinforce the offending parents’ omnipotence and send a message to the children: “You’re on your own, no one is going to help you.” By powerful social training, we are more likely to intervene on behalf of a dog being kicked by its owner than a child being mistreated by a parent. As Americans, we routinely gawk at the suffering of car accident victims but avert our eyes and ears when we see a child being backhanded in a supermarket.
These social and cultural dynamics, which permit parents to maim, torture and abuse their children to death, require us to rethink our entire approach to ameliorating what is a clearly a public health problem. Our present child abuse intervention policy relies exclusively on the investigative efforts of mandatory reporters such as teachers, social workers, doctors and law enforcement officers. While these advocates for children are ideally suited to identify a suspiciously cut lip or black eye, they are not the ones who were present when the injury was originally inflicted. This is not to denigrate the efforts of these professionals, but the reality is that by the time a police officer or social services worker gets involved, the damage has been done.
Instead, what we require to battle this scourge is the affirmative involvement of the child’s extended family, friends and neighbors. We need to begin a massive public education effort to reverse deeply ingrained social attitudes that tell an adult, “How my relative, neighbor or friend treats her child is not my business.” Every adult needs to become a child advocate, the voice of a child who is too afraid, too vulnerable to speak for herself.