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OCP INFORMATIONAL ARTICLES

April 2011

APRIL CHILD ABUSE AWARENESS MONTH!

DID YOU KNOW . . .

That many myths and misconceptions about child abuse, child safety and family health still linger in the minds of the American public?  Even in our own diocese, where there has been a tremendous amount of education, myths still persist.  Given that this is Child Abuse Awareness month, there seems to be no better time to address these myths.

A quick search of the Internet will provide any reader with a number of lists and articles on the myths of child and family safety, and this article cannot possibly address them all.  However, this will be an attempt to address the most common myths, as well as the ones heard most often in the diocese during the past year.

Myth 1: Child abuse does not happen very often, especially in our area, in a Catholic setting, etc.

This is part of the denial expressed so often by individuals who simply wish children were not abused, or at the very least, that abuse did not happen in certain groups or settings.  However, statistics do not support this at all.  A report of child abuse is made once every 10 seconds in the United States.  Statistics also show that nearly five children die per day in the U.S., due to some form of abuse or maltreatment.  More than 75% of these deaths are children under the age of 4. (Childhelp, 2011).  Anyone working in any child welfare field office in the country can testify to the fact that reports stream in every day, and that the reports cover every demographic: rich, middle class, poor, young, old, educated, uneducated, etc.  Simply put, there is no group that is completely immune from or free of child abuse.

Myth 2: If abuse does happen, it’s usually a stranger or someone with whom we would not associate.

Statistics show us that 90% of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator, and that 68% of child abuse victims are abused by a family member (Childhelp, 2011).  The days of teaching stranger danger, or that the person to watch out for is a scruffy stranger in a trench coat, are long over. 

Myth 3: If a child is abused, s/he would tell a parent almost immediately.

In general, victims of abuse or sexual assault commonly wait at least five years to report the assault.  Furthermore, experts who have researched this field for years have found that only 3% of all child sexual abuse cases and only 12% of rapes involving children are every reported to law enforcement officials.  Children who are abused are often threatened by the perpetrator with terrible consequences if they tell, such as going to jail, never seeing parents again, never having friends accept them, or even being hurt or murdered.  I interviewed one teenager who was afraid to tell because her abuser had threatened to commit suicide if the police came looking for him.  The police did try to contact the abuser and he made good on his threat, but did so in a way that would have the strongest and most negative impact possible on the victim. 

Children also feel a range of other emotions, such as guilt, shame, confusion, etc. and often choose to keep quiet rather than take an action with such scary consequences.  Children often do not show physical signs of abuse, particularly if they are old enough to dress and bathe themselves.  Abused children who are afraid of telling will go to great lengths to hide scars or bruises until they heal.

Myth 4: If asked about abuse, children tend to lie or exaggerate what happened.

When teaching classes on child protection, I always talk about child disclosures by saying that children are often reluctant to tell, and even if they do, there is a huge amount of information they withhold.  Think of it as an enormous iceberg, and the child who finally feels safe in sharing might share a quarter of an inch of the tip of that 100 mile deep iceberg. 

It is important to remember that the younger the child, the less likely a child is to make something up because the child would not know about most types of abuse without personal experience to teach the child.  Even as children get older, they are reluctant to talk about abuse and will rarely lie about abuse unless there is a mental health issue involved.

Children also do not typically exaggerate abuse for the same reason as lying in general—they are reluctant to talk in the first place and even when they do, they usually only tell one small part of what is happening.  The only time a child may exaggerate is if a well-meaning but untrained adult asks leading questions and suggests abuse, along with body language and other cues that encourage a very young child to go along with the adult’s suggestions.  This is one of the main reasons that we emphasize over and over again NOT to ask questions of a child who discloses.  All you need to do is support the child and report the allegations.  Only trained investigators should ask a child questions!

Myth 5: Children rarely, if ever, become abusers.

While it is true that many abused children do not become abusers, there are some who do, and it may happen more often than you think.  The difference between child abusers and adults who abuse are that the children do not usually abuse others to be hurtful or malicious; they do it out of their own misplaced anger or rage at being a victim themselves, or they seek victims to replicate the pleasurable sexual feelings to which they have been exposed.  The first question a trained investigator wonders when learning of a child who abuses is, “Who abused this child?”  Clinicians know about body betrayal, which is a clinical term for the fact that a victim’s body may react sexually, even if the victim knows the sexual behavior is wrong.  Consider the young child who is fondled and aroused.  That child may know that the person doing that should not be doing it, but the body still reacts and it feels good.  This is one of the many reasons that children are confused about or even feel guilty about abuse.  However, under the law, no child can consent to sexual contact, making any such contact wrong, immoral and illegal. 

Myth 6: If a child does abuse another child, it is because of something seen on TV.

This is a belief that far too many adults rush to embrace when a child actually is found to be abusing another child.  However, this could not be further from a reasonable explanation.  Think of how many children watch television every day of the week and how often children may accidentally watch shows or scenes that the parent or caretaker would not want the child to see.  How many times does that result in an abusive child?  I do not know of one in the hundreds of cases I investigated, or in all the others I was involved with.  It is possible that a scene may give a child an idea or more likely, a fantasy, if the child is old enough, but most children have a sense of boundaries and right and wrong that would prevent action on the idea.  Those who do not have usually had their own boundaries violated in some way which allows them to push aside concerns or which compels them to act. 

Myth 7: People are too quick to believe that anyone alleged to have abused a child is actually guilty.

In reality, the opposite is true.  Most adults will believe a person is innocent, especially of such a heinous offense as child abuse, unless there is actual evidence and in many cases, it takes a great deal of evidence to convince people.  It is easier to deny this reality than to believe that someone you may know or even like could do such a thing.

As noted by Dr. Anna Salter, an expert in sexual offenders, noted, “a double life is prevalent among all types of sex offenders. . . . The front that offenders typically offer to the outside world is usually a ‘good person,’ someone who the community believes has a good character and would never do such a thing” (Salter, 2003, p. 34).  The Leadership Council (2011) wrote, “Dr. Salter has found that the life a child molester leads in public may be exemplary, almost surreal in righteousness,” (para. 5).  There is a quote in the article from Dr. Salter’s book about a man who was a pillar of his community (successful professional, husband, father, etc.) and who appeared to be the epitome of trustworthiness.  In reality, he was a self-confessed molester of boys from the age of 13 until he was caught and imprisoned.  After completing his sentence and being released from prison, he went right back to working in a church and abusing boys until he was caught again.

Myth 8: Girls are more likely to be abused than boys.

Girls are only slightly more likely to be abused than boys.  The estimates are that 1 out of every 3-4 girls is abused by the age of 18 and 1 out of every 4-6 boys.  Statistics vary, but what we do know is that boys are less likely to report because of cultural issues in this country.  Here, we expect boys to be “tougher,” which they sometimes interpret as being quiet and not “whining” about abuse.  Boys may also be more confused about sexual abuse because of the sexual identity crisis abuse by a male can cause.  For these reasons, boys tend to keep the secret more often and for longer periods of time.

Myth 9: Child abusers will abuse any available child.

All true pedophiles have a preference in terms of age and gender of the child.  Pedophiles prefer children who range from infants and toddlers to pre-pubescent children.  Each pedophile has a developmental stage or age within that range.  Hebephiles are those who have a sexual preference for children in the early years of puberty, generally ages 11 to 14.  Ephebophiles are those who have a sexual preference for children in later states of adolescence. 

Most also have a preference by gender, although not all do, especially pedophiles who like really young children.  Another common myth is that all homosexuals are child abusers, but most have sexual preferences for adults and have no interest in children at all.  Likewise, a heterosexual generally has a sexual preference for adults of the opposite sex, but heterosexual child abusers prefer children of the opposite sex in whatever age range appeals to the perpetrator.

Myth 10: The use of drugs or alcohol by the perpetrator causes child abuse.

Once again, because child abuse is such a horrendous and disgusting crime, people who do not engage in this behavior try to find rationales such as the influence of drugs or alcohol to explain the behavior.  This is NOT true.  What is true is that both drugs and alcohol reduce inhibitions, making the person less likely to control urges and more likely to act on them.  However, someone who is not already attracted to children sexually will not suddenly develop a sexual desire for a child because of using drugs or alcohol.

Myth 11: The use of drugs or alcohol by the perpetrator causes domestic violence.

Just as with myth #10, the use of drugs or alcohol does not cause someone to become violent.  It takes an abusive personality or mentality that already exists in order for drugs or alcohol to release that behavior.  Most abusers are charmers in public and hide their abusive tendencies well, until they are behind closed doors with their victims.  Then the personality changes like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and only the family members know how abusive the person can be.  Similarly, the presence of weapons does not cause someone to become violent; but an already violent person may choose to use a weapon, if available, to act upon the violent desire or tendency.

Myth 12: Women who stay in domestic violence relationships are just too weak to walk away. 

A short lesson in domestic violence is that the first thing an abuser does to the victim is isolate her (most, but not all, victims are women).  This means not allowing her access to a car, a cell phone, or letting her have any money of her own.  She is generally not allowed to work outside the home and whenever possible, the abuser prefers to find a residence in an isolated area as well, such as a farm or rural area.  That way, even if the woman does escape, she cannot find help easily.

She is also told, almost on a daily basis, that she is stupid, ugly, worthless, unlovable, etc., so that she has no self-esteem left.  She is virtually brainwashed so that she truly believes that even if she asks for help, no one would want to help her.  She may even come to believe, with time, that she is lucky to have a partner at all, because she is so worthless that no one else would want any contact with her. 

Therefore, if a woman in this situation even dares to dream of a different kind of life, she may have a hard time getting away or believing it is possible at all.  And, no abuse would be true to his title without threatening to harm or kill her, and if available, their children, pets, etc.  In such dire circumstances, most women simply give up and tolerate the abuse.  In fact, statistics show that it usually takes at least seven attempts to leave before the woman finally feels strong enough to stay away and try to rebuild her life.  However, the time that she leaves is also the time that she and her children are most likely to be killed.  Abusers think of their wives, children and pets as property and generally become enraged at the loss of this “property.”

Myth 13: Being pregnant is a safe time for a woman, even if her husband or partner is generally abusive.

This could not be more false.  Those working in the field of domestic violence know that pregnancy makes a woman even more vulnerable, and therefore more likely to be beaten.  There are numerous cases of children being killed in the womb by abusive men who beat the pregnant mother.  If the baby is born alive and well, s/he is likely to simply become the next generation of victims, without trained intervention.

Myth 14: Men are never the victims of domestic violence.

For much the same reasons as boys who do not report abuse, men who are victims also tend not to report it.  There are men who are beaten by their wives or by their same-sex partners.  In our society, both situations are viewed as a form of weakness or a defect on the part of the victim, making the victim far less likely to report.  In the past decade, there has been more outreach done to male victims, but they still are far outnumbered by female victims who have reported their abuse.

Myth 15: Anyone who is a victim of violence, whether domestic or sexual or child abuse, must have done something to cause it or deserve it.

This is another rationale that people use to try to push away the ugliness of abuse.  If I had a dime for every mother who blamed her teenage daughter for abuse, I could be retired on a tropical island by now.  As difficult as it may be to believe, even professionals have sometimes blamed the victim rather than face the truth of the abuse.  Children are blamed for being seductive; domestic violence victims are blamed for staying with the victim, etc.  The truth is that victimizing anyone is wrong, period!  It is often illegal, such as in bullying, domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, and it is certainly immoral. 

Christ set the example for all of us—he healed the sick, reached out to the poor and marginalized, and showed great love for the little children.  Think of the life our Savior led—one of being misunderstood, mocked, spat upon, or otherwise disrespected by those in authority who felt threatened by Him.  For those who did believe, there were constant, desperate pleas for help that drained Him physically and emotionally.  Take a moment to imagine, in the midst of all these challenges, knowing what His fate would be, the day that He was able to call the little children to him.  Think of the respite that must have been for him, to be able to simply enjoy their sweet faces, child voices, and innocence.  To hear their laughter and to feel their hugs and their unrestrained joy in His presence must have been a treasured experience for the Savior of the world.

Let us, in this time of turmoil in the world and in the lives of those around us, take the time to notice those children or families in need and to represent Christ to them.  Is there any greater honor than to care for one of His own in a way that would bring joy to Jesus himself?

With prayers for blessings during this Lenten season and always, and in His love,

Debora Jones
Coordinator, Office for Child Protection

References

Childhelp oneline. (2011). National child abuse statistics.  Retrieved March 7, 2011, from             www.childhelp.org/pages/statistics

Leadership Council online. (2011). Eight common myths about child sexual abuse.  Retrieved             March 2, 2011 from http://www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/res/csa_myths.html

McKinstrey, C. (2010).  Dispelling common myths about child abuse.  Journal Standard.              Retrieved March 7, 2011, from             http://www.journalstandard.com/opinions/columnists/x1920335612/Dispelling-common-         myths-about-child-abuse

 

 

 

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