THE SILENT EPIDEMIC
Picture, if you can a cold Christmas Eve. You are 8 years old, you’re happy; your family is driving in the car under a wintry, starry sky. You breathe on the window and write your name in the condensation. Christmas music is on the radio and you can’t wait for Santa to come. Mom and Dad are driving your sister over to her boyfriend’s house. You pull in the driveway and everyone is chatting. All of a sudden you notice your Mom looking out her window towards the street and the mood suddenly changes. Before you know what’s happening, there’s a woman at your window screaming “HELP, HE’S GOING TO KILL ME” as a man runs up and grabs her from behind and slams her head into the window you just wrote your name in. Your mother is telling your Dad to close his window as she’s dialing her cell phone. You are alone in the back seat because your sisters had already gotten out to go in the house. The woman is still screaming as the man is punching her and slamming her against your car.
You witness this scene from beginning to end. The man and woman are both drunk. Your parents have to rush you into the house to keep you safe until the police get there. The man keeps trying to come back and you’re afraid he’ll hurt your Mom or Dad. You see the police take him away in handcuffs. Merry Christmas.
This was not a dream that this child could run into Mom and Dad’s room after waking from for comfort. This is a true story that happened to my daughter that gives her the nightmares. The incident has scarred her beyond anyone else’s comprehension because no one else was sitting in that back seat as an 8 year old little girl. When all was said and done, the justice system was willing to get the woman, who chose to put herself in that position, time and time again, free counseling. Why? Because she was the victim. She didn’t want the help and didn’t even want to press charges against the man who was her husband. I asked for help for my child. Why? Because she too was a victim. A victim of circumstance. She didn’t choose to be there. She didn’t ask to have her emotional and mental health assaulted. She couldn’t defend herself even if she wanted to. Did she get any help from our legal system? No, because they did not consider her a victim.
Children fall victim to many different types of abuse every day. Some are of the heart or mind while others are purely physical. Our society, in general, continues to hand out empty promises to our children. We say we want to and will protect them. We say we will listen to them and let them be heard. If this is true , why do we let pedophiles back on the streets and into our neighborhoods? Why do we let abusers back into homes where we know the children have been abused? Why wasn’t my daughter considered a victim?
These are all questions I will answer not only for myself but for the unheard voices as well. We have a system full of starving, neglected, abused, hurting children. Every one of them affects our society in one way or another. Based on my research, child abuse has become an epidemic and needs to be addressed more passionately in order that our children are assured safety as well as ensuring that the cycle of abuse does not continue when they have families of their own.
Where psychologists and the law are concerned, there is a difference between child abuse and neglect. According to the Encyclopedia of Psychological Disorders, Child Abuse and Neglect, examining the psychological components, there are “four categories of child maltreatment – neglect, emotional and mental abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. Neglect involves failure to provide appropriate food, shelter, clothing, education, supervision, or health care.”(Nadelson, C., M.D., 9) This would mean that, in order for a parent/guardian to be legally charged with either child abuse or child neglect, they will have had to have a claim substantiated by a respective social service agency. The only way for this to occur is either by another adult stepping up to the plate and advising authorities of suspected abuse or neglect of a child or, if the child is courageous enough, go and tell someone themselves. Herein lies the problem. . . too many adults do not want to get involved and too many children are afraid to discuss the abuse that is being inflicted upon them.
If you have never endured any type of abuse in your lifetime, consider yourself lucky. The following statistics, derived from the Child Welfare League of America National Data Analysis System, note that in 2002, 7,751 children were deemed to have been victims of child abuse and/or neglect in the state of Virginia. In 2001, 9,873 were deemed to have been victimized by the standards set forth by each county. Of that nine thousand eight hundred and seventy three, 36 children died at the hands of their perpetrators. Not all children that have been reported actually get help by each state's various child protective agencies. In 2001, thirty seven thousand nine hundred and eighty eight children were referred for report in Virginia. Only 20, 950 were screened and deemed substantiated by their respective child protective agencies. That left 17,038 children to fend for themselves. Bearing this in mind, it is easy to see that the system is, in effect, non-effective. These statistics are noted to be on the low side since many cases go unreported simply because most children are threatened if they tell anyone and too many adults who are aware the abuse is going on, won’t get involved or in the most perverse of cases, are they themselves inflicting the deviant behavior. (National Data Analysis System Child Welfare League of America.org)
In a very graphic book written by a victim of child abuse, one of the worst cases confirmed in the state of California, called, A Child Called ‘It’, Dave Pelzer writes about the horrific torture and degradation he endured at the hands of his mother for years. On one occasion as he recalls, “She knelt down, opened the sink cabinet and removed a bottle of ammonia….With the spoon in her hand, Mother began to creep towards me.” “All I could think was,’ Come on, let’s go, let’s get it over with.’ …she again told me that only speed would save me….Mother rammed the cold spoon deep into my throat.”(74-75) “The next evening was a repeat performance . . . in front of Father. She boasted to him. ‘This will teach The Boy to quit stealing food!’ The next morning. . . I looked in the mirror to inspect my burning tongue. . .Layers of flesh were scraped away. Mother never made me swallow ammonia again, she did make me drink spoonfuls of Clorox a few times” (76-77). There are literally thousands like Dave suffering at the hands of monstrous individuals like his mother every minute of every day.
One might ask themselves, ‘what on Earth is wrong with this woman? She’s sick! And, yes, indeed she was for years and Pelzer had to endure that perverse sickness while his mother evaded teachers, neighbors, authorities. . . even her own husband’s concern for their son. Granted, this is an extreme case of child abuse but, when a child is stealing food from other children at school, being victimized by bullies consistently, making up excuse after excuse for broken bones and bruises, adults have a moral responsibility to intervene on a child’s behalf and stand against those who dole out such acts of cruelty.
Why then doesn’t our legal system do more to protect our children? Why don’t more neighbors, family members, teachers, etc. get involved and report abuse when it is blatantly apparent from bruises, broken bones, lost teeth and hospital visits? Because there are those in our society who believe they have a right to discipline their children any way they see fit; those who believe that exploitation of children, as in child pornography, is okay and those among society who turn a blind eye to those who can’t help themselves as long as it doesn’t affect them.
In the case of child pornography which, in and of itself is an act of abuse against children, there are those who contend that banning child pornography is a crime against the First Amendment (free speech). Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer, being one of them. Kaminer insists “…fantasizing about sexual activity [computer-generated child pornography] is, once again, not as risky as engaging in it” (147). Not only is this a blatant misuse of the First Amendment right but it completely disregards the rights of the so-called “computer-generated” children when one would never be able to tell the difference between that and a ‘real’ child. Need it even be brought to attention that sex with a minor is illegal as well as the fact that there is a mental illness that goes along with this perversion called pedophilia? Simply because we are in an age of internet frenzy does not negate the fact that these are real problems concerning real people.
The problem with all of the aforementioned is that child abuse affects all of us. It affects society in more ways than one. If the child grows up with such tremendous emotional scarring, and rightly so, their behavior can become volatile, self destructive and even criminal. This in turn not only adds to society’s crime rate but the cost of rehabilitation in our legal system, as a whole, from juvenile systems, defense attorneys, overcrowded court rooms, overcrowded prisons, as well as more crimes against children and adults alike. Ron O’Grady, in an excerpt from Child Abuse Opposing Viewpoints, illustrates this with a more global approach when he contends, “Society will always be judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable members. When it ignores the abuse of its own children, it creates social problems that will last long into the future . . .” (56). A case in point; on March 3, 2005, France opened a massive pedophilia trial wherein 66 defendants are being brought to trial for numerous heinous crimes against children including filmed rapes and sexual abuse. Many were acted out by their own family members “or people close to them who paid money, food, cigarettes or liquor.” (News Yahoo.com) This case included an entire community and had been going on for years! Just imagine, as O’Grady states, the types of social problems this community will be facing, not to mention the victims, for years to come. Where do you think these perpetrators will go if found not guilty or are incarcerated and let back out once they’ve served their time?
Children deserve to live in a safe, stable environment in which to learn trust, compassion, understanding and unconditional love. No one has the right to injure, degrade, or misuse another human being, especially one who cannot protect themselves. The legal system has specific outlined laws against adults who prey on other adults. The lines have been blurred when it comes to children. If most of the types of abuse that happen to children are perpetrated on adults, the person is duly charged and punished by law. Since it is a child, the law looks at it as more of a ‘mental disorder’ and prefers instead to get the individual ‘help’ and only under dire circumstances, remove the child from the destructive environment. This is proven over and over again in the case of pedophiles who are let back into communities where there are children only to be charged yet again with the same perverse crime. This, in a word, is wrong. The laws need to change and the adults need to be held accountable for their actions.
As Sean Swint writes after researching statistics from the “Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry”, “…not enough is done for the victims.” One reason given by David A. Wolfe, PhD, who handles many studies that are conducted over a period of time and requests funding for said studies is, “It’s tough stuff to follow people over long periods to see the long term effects of intervention. Politicians don’t want to wait that long to see results.” To these politicians I would say, making the thousands of abused and neglected children wait even one more day is abuse in and of itself! Intervention is only one part of the solution to ending the misery so many children are living in. Funding these intervention studies is the least our government can do. They must begin to make the punishment for the offense hurt the perpetrator as badly as it has hurt the victim.
The long term affects on those who have been abused can be devastating at best. “According to the Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (1996), girls are sexually abused three times more often than boys.” (Nadelson, M.D. 10). Imagine then, what this does not only to one’s self-esteem but their future relationships, their view on sexuality, how they view their own bodies, etc. The powerlessness and vulnerability that a child feels when they have been sexually molested is beyond comprehension to one who has never experienced this perverse act of abuse. Yet, if a child reaches a certain age, remembers the acts and tells someone only to be disbelieved or worse yet, it is ‘swept under the rug’ or made to feel somehow it was their own fault, what are they to do? Many children will attempt suicide, become overly promiscuous, develop severe depression or other type of psychological disorder or even take out their pent up aggression on even more unsuspecting innocents in our society. All of these due to someone else’s actions. . . not their own. This is unacceptable in a society that says its children are its most precious asset.
One can argue that discipline should be left up to the individual family and that spanking your child is a necessary punishment to get them to listen and behave. We have seen it many times possibly while shopping in the grocery store and you see a child throwing a tantrum while Mom is trying to check out. Or, what about the child that consistently back-talks and has been warned repeatedly to stop and Mom or Dad has had enough? Discipline and abuse are completely different. Discipline is a method to teach your child not to do something but it should not be done out of anger. Abuse is when your anger has taken control of you and you are now taking that anger out on the child. As noted in Encyclopedia of Psychological Disorders Child Abuse and Neglect, “physical and sexual abuse are. . .the intentional misuse or exploitation of a child by a parent or caretaker…” (19)
There is much to be done in the way of protection and prevention with child abuse. “Sources of information vary, but it is estimated that one in five children are physically, emotionally or sexually abused in our country.” (Pelzer, A Child Called ‘It’, 161-162) Each and every one of us has a moral and ethical responsibility to report abuse when we see or believe it is taking place. Educators are with our children nearly 8 hours out of every day nine months a year and need to make the call if they suspect abuse or neglect. There needs to be more public awareness, parental responsibility and accountability as well as more community involvement.
When I first moved to Richmond, we lived in an apartment complex. There was a single mom with four children living above us and the youngest girl went to school with my youngest daughter. It was the usual story of mom never being home and the oldest child was usually left to take care of the younger one’s. One day we noticed a man was hanging around and staying there more often. I’ll call the little girl LaToya. LaToya would come knocking on our door every morning around 6:30 a.m. and come over almost every evening looking for food. She wanted to start taking baths at our house because “bugs crawl on me in my bathtub” she said.
One day, shortly after school let out I heard, at first, what I thought was LaToya laughing. A few seconds later, as I moved closer to my door, I realized it was screaming and crying. There was pounding on the door and I heard “NO PLEASE, HELP.” I hurried, opened the door and stepped outside. What I saw next not only horrified me but angered me even more. There stood the man swinging a belt back and forth whipping LaToya and her brother wherever it landed. Her brother was trying to huddle and shield himself in a corner while LaToya was trying to run away from him. I yelled at him to stop. He acted like he didn’t even see me much less hear me. I ran into my apartment, grabbed my cordless phone, ran back outside and dialed 911. The man was still whipping the children. I ran directly up to him and said I was talking to the police. . . . it didn’t phase him. I told the police they needed to hurry because he wasn’t about to stop.
Finally the police arrived, the man, who turned out to be an Uncle, saw their car and calmly went back into his apartment. By this time my own children had come home and only caught the tail end of the incident. I ended up being subpoenaed to testify in court. The man skipped town and the mother testified that she gave him the ‘authority’ to discipline her children in that manner. As it stands, there is a warrant for the man’s arrest. That was approximately 4 years ago. If he is ever caught or stopped for any type of vehicle violation, they will arrest him for child abuse at that time. Other than that, he’s a free man. The mother got off with a warning, and the kids. . . . they have to remain living under those conditions. The worst part. . . do you want to know why they were being whipped? They were trying to eat the peanut butter that their mother recently bought.
I know how it feels to walk in Latoya’s shoes. No one protected my rights forty plus years ago and statistics are indicative that time has not even begun to heal the wounds and assure life in a safe, stable environment for those like Latoya (four years ago), my daughters as a victim of circumstance and thousands more each and every day.
“What I remember most about my mother was that she was always beating me. She’d beat me with her high-heeled shoes. . . When my breasts started growing at 13, she beat me across the chest until I fainted. Then she’d hug me and ask forgiveness…” (Abnormal Psychology 444) You will note from all of the examples given throughout this piece, that these children were not being ‘disciplined’ for doing something against their parents’ wishes but simply being beaten for some unknown reason or someone’s perverse pleasure. Of course there are those who commit these acts in the name of discipline but it all boils down to one act. . . abuse. And this is unacceptable.
The perpetrators who prey on the innocent of our society need to be held accountable and dealt with by the strictest of standards. In this way we protect and promote the self esteem of the thousands of unheard voices, help them retain their dignity and encourage them to be healthy functioning individuals that can contribute in a positive way to their futures and our society as a whole.
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Kaminer, Wendy. “Laws Against Computer-Generated Child Pornography Are
Unnecessary and Unfair.” Child Abuse Opposing Vewpoints. Ed. Louise I.
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And C.E.O., American Psychiatric Press, Inc. Encyclopedia of Psychological
Disorders Child Abuse and Neglect Examining the psychological components.
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O’Grady, Ron. “Globalization Fosters Sexual Child Abuse. Child Abuse Opposing
Viewpoints. Louise I Gerdes, Eds. Michigan: Greenhaven, 2003. 56
Pelzer, Dave. A Child Called “It”. Florida: Health Communications, Inc. 1995.
---. The Privilege of Youth. New York: Penguin Group, 2005.
Swint, Sean. “More Research Needed on Child Abuse and Neglect.” WebMDHealth.
15 Oct. 1999. http://www.mywebmd.com/content/article/79/96082.htm
Yahoo News.com. Derschau, Verena Von. Assoc. Press Writer. 3 March 2005.
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