I make it a regular practice to engage in online and in-person debates on a variety of subjects. I have engaged in more than one discussion about the effects of gay people on families, on the effects of violence in video games on children, and abortion. All of these have been called child abuse or killing by their proponents. Most of the time, these people are not professionals in child development, they are not experts of any kind in those fields; just interested and concerned people. It occurs to me, though, that I have never engaged in a spirited debate about how to tackle actual child abuse by anyone who did not work in the system. We will talk about a plethora of pseudo-abuses topics worth our attention and discussion but when real lives are at stake, we shut our mouths, turn our heads, and change the subject.
When I realized how much attention I was giving to these hypersensitive, ill founded, PTA-mommy concerns, I was pretty ashamed of myself. I have worked for 15 years with actually abused children. Children with broken bones, punched-in faces, born addicted to meth, raped by their family, pregnant by their fathers, sent to live with their rapists, mothers pimping out their kids, foster kids human trafficked, all things the consequences and actions of which I have seen personally.
I decided to vent my frustrations on Facebook with this post; "I am often shocked at how little abused children matter to our society and how much pseudo-abuse (video game violence, hearing about gay families, seeing sex on TV) matters to people. It is disgusting."
Within a few minutes these comments were posted, “What do you mean by "hearing about gay families"?”, and “So hearing about gay families is abuse? Seems to me like teaching prejudice is abuse.” It continued on like that for a while. In there was a demand, “Please explain the gay families comment...”.
Besides the obvious need to teach the American public the meaning of the word pseudo, they perfectly illustrated my problem with the way we treat the problem of child abuse. Given an opportunity to focus anywhere else, it will happen. Even if I had meant that hearing about gay people is abuse, it still should not have been the topic of discussion. A matter of the life and death of children should garner more attention in both casual conversation and political attention than matter of ignorance.
Why are we wasting our time on discussing if video games or talking about gay families hurts children? We know it doesn't. Why aren't we using our time to help these kids, to fund studies of the programs that serve them. There are hundreds of studies on video game violence, millions of dollars spent to study the effects of video games on children. Meanwhile, there are no large scale studies of foster care outcomes, very few properly controlled studies of long term effects of abuse, and no good research on how to treat child abuse victims; either as adults or children.
I suspect fear is the main reason why people do not discuss child abuse. They fear what abusive parents might do, they fear not being seen as cheerful, they fear being judged themselves, and they fear having no answer when asked.
Part of it may be that it is depressing to discuss child abuse. It is one of the most viscerally disturbing things any sane human has to consider. In our positivity based culture, discussing anything that cannot be given a positive spin is often seen as not only seen as sad, but downright distasteful.
Giving voice to abuse, especially specific cases, is often classified as being nosy or butting-in when it is none of the business of the person nosying. Sadly, this attitude creates a quiet culture of abuse, where children know everyone knows they are being abused and are doing nothing to protect them, thus validating the abuse.
The willingness to turn away may partially be based on the fact that we think this is all being taken care of by foster care agencies, that social workers are the best trained to serve this population. In essence, we have given away our responsibility to care for the children in our communities and children as a whole to the experts.
Which brings me to another potential hurdle; ignorance. Many people believe that social workers and other such workers are the best suited to care for an injured child and to assess an abusive situation. Unfortunately, this assertion has never been proven and the cases of social worker incompetence and neglect are so numerous that it is no longer even a reasonable assumption that social workers are best suited for intervention.
Social workers maneuver children through the system, many have no specialized training in child abuse, many have no special training to act as treatment professionals of abused children, and do not act as such in most cases. There are no large scale outcome measurements and most abuse studies are poorly controlled, so most of what social workers are trained in are unfounded assertions or examples of confirmation bias. Meaning that even if they had access to training, it would be a terrible foundation on which to make decisions of welfare. Worse, if one hundred social workers were polled, there would be two hundred inconsistent answers; some legally based and some ignorant of the laws. Which makes them as qualified as the general population to assess abuse, practically speaking.
Legal definitions leave a great deal to the discretion of a law enforcement agency. It seems that the general public is ignorant of what is legally considered abusive behavior and for good reason. The abuse statutes are unevenly enforced because most agencies who remove children or investigate abuse offer little oversight of the people making the determinations. This is true for police officers, social workers, and investigators. A parent may be cleared for abuse by one social worker and another parent in a similar situation would be assessed by another official as abusive. It is unheard of for a social services agency to offer the public a way to assess abuse and a way to know when to report abuses.
People are left to their own moral judgment when deciding how they define abuse, and when it is bad enough that they will intervene. Unfortunately, when people are faced with calling a child welfare department, many are faced with an terrible question; is foster care better?
That question has never been answered. It is my instinct to answer that it is better to have non-governmental intervention when possible.
Which brings me back to my initial issue: people will not intervene. They are unwilling to take direct action like exerting peer pressure on parents who are acting abusively, directly attempting to gain custody of an abused child by request and consent of the parent, refuse to give work to abusers, refuse to speak directly to the abusers, find help for the child, or any number of other direct actions possible. Even worse, the instincts that stop people from being unwilling to discuss the individual cases of abuse are the ones that stop someone from even discussing the problem in the abstract.
It is a self-perpetuating fear because as long as there is no conversation, abstract or individual, there will be no solutions or community solidarity when it comes to ending child abuse.
It is a shameful but I fear a true statement, that we are a nation of cowards when it comes to the topic of child abuse. We tremble when we even suspect we have heard whisper of abuse. Our knees knock when it becomes the topic of conversation. Entire populations get hysterical blindness when they are personally faced with a case of child abuse. We use euphemisms like molest, or tough life or bad parents or dysfunctional to placate our horror and self-disgust at our own inaction. We believe there should be child abuse laws to protect our children, but we use our own children as excuses for inaction, which perpetrates existing problems.
We ignore tools we can use because we are too busy evading abused children like they are emotional heat seeking missiles. To our social media we post inspirational quotes like “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” by Edmund Burke or “Character is easier kept than recovered.” by Thomas Paine or Martin Luther King, Jr.'s “The time is always right to do what is right.” or even Jesus “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” We hope to inspire our children and our neighbors to do what is right. Then we tuck our tails between our legs and whimper as we run away from fulfilling our own opportunities to live what we try to invigorate in others.
I am left asking myself, Where are the people who actually believe any of those quotes?
Where are the men who believe violence against children is wrong and are willing to vocally, physically, abstractly, and specifically stand up against it? Why aren't they shaming the other men who beat their children and wives, have their children removed into foster care, or just refuse to participate in their lives? Why aren't they taking care of the abused children in their lives?
Where are the women who assume that it is the responsibility of the community to care for all the children? Where are the women willing to step in and council a struggling parent or to watch a child while the parent is in treatment?
Where are the libertarians? With all the talk of self reliance, where is the action to back it up? Why, if they believe we all need to be responsible for ourselves without government assistance, are they not shaming abusers, abandoners, beaters, and taking in the children of those whose parents are unsuitable to parent?
Why are we afraid to employ peer pressure? How many of us have seen a PTA meeting where the mothers employ peer pressure to get an unruly parent in line, or a parent screaming at a speeding car on a street where children play. We warn children to be aware of peer pressure because it works. Yet, we we turn into yellow-bellied humanity-draft dodgers when we might employ it for something more meaningful than the color of the school t-shirt.
When we do a personal assessment of our own character, can we live with a beating that could have been prevented by action? It is impossible to wash the shame of inaction away. It is a tattoo, a permanent identification marker of the person who did not act. No amount of soap, no loofah, no chemical peel can remove that ink from someone who allowed harm to a child out of their own hysterics. Nor should it. It is well earned.
Child abuse is depressing. It's scary. It hurts our hearts. Those feelings are our bodies hearing our conscience screaming at us, demanding action of us. The reason why it never goes away is because not enough action has been taken to make child abuse an aberrant occurrence. When it does, we might be able to assign the child abuse tasks to the government, but until then, it is up to us to act.
We act as wildebeests running from lions - willing to let someone else's children get eaten as long as we do not have to fear or face the lions. We should be more like muskoxen, who face wolves together, to protect everyone's offspring because everyone's offspring matters.