Child Abuse: Real or Imagined

Stories about child abuse, sexual or otherwise, are brought to our attention and often sensationalized by media coverage.  Sexual abuse, in particular, has received much attention with the advent of the Internet making access and spread of child pornography easier.  Parents are concerned about the potential for children to be reached and lured into dangerous situations as a consequence.

A new book, “The Witch-Hunt Narrative” by Ross Cheit, Professor of Public Policy at Brown University, examines the way in which the reality of social issues can be obscured by sensationalized reporting that prevents accurate understanding of a problem. In this instance, at issue is a series of child sex abuse cases that rocked the country during the 1980’s, the most famous of which was the McMartin preschool case.

Cheit actually is writing about two narratives that were the result of the initial panic created by these cases. The first narrative resulting from the reporting was that sex abuse was widespread and reflected the moral decline of the country.  Although seven people were indicted in the McMartin case that involved abuse of 48 children, after years of investigation and prosecution the case ended without a single conviction.

As questions began to arise about the reporting of the original claims, as Cheit sees it, a new narrative took over.  This narrative was that sensationalized reporting had created a moral panic leading to a witch hunt that exaggerated the extent and nature of the problem.  An important part of this narrative was that children who testified were not reliable and easily swayed by prosecutorial suggestion.

The question raised by Cheit is whether the new witch hunt narrative reflects reality any more than the original narrative caused by sensationalized reporting.  His thesis is that neither narrative accurately reflects reality and both narratives have prevented a true understanding of the problem.  After extensive investigation, Cheit’s finding is that the problem in reality did exist and was not the result simply of sensationalized reporting.  The theory about it that developed was also at odds with reality and prevented not only a deeper understanding of the problem but also a failure adequately to deal with it.

How to bring about reasoned discussion of a social problem in this new media age is an important question that touches on many current issues.  With regard to child abuse, not only sex abuse but also parental abuse of children frequently receives widespread and often sensational coverage.  Some of the questions raised about the earlier cases arise here as well.  One in particular has to do with the reliability of children’s testimony, not necessarily only in a court of law.

Much has been learned about the questioning of children, their suggestibility and potential for saying what adults want to hear.  We also know that even when abused, children are protective of their parents and may deny that any abuse has occurred. At the same time, even observers may misinterpret interactions they witness between parents and children.  Particularly given a wide range of beliefs about raising children, one parent’s discipline may look abusive to another.

Unhappily, there have been periodic cases of extreme abuse of their children by parents who were clearly mentally ill.  But short of that, many parents can identify with the kind of situations that cause parents to “lose it.”  Leading parent groups for many years, I found that a theme emerged whenever a case was reported in the press.  Repelled by the events, mothers sought to distance themselves from the behavior described, reassuring themselves that they could never engage in such acts.

Parents could identify with feelings that can be overpowering and, therefore, frightening at times.  The fear is that the feelings might lead to aggressive behavior that might harm their children.  And sometimes they do.  Fortunately, most parents have sufficient control mechanisms in place that prevent the kind of behavior that would match the strength of the feelings.  

Cheit points out that we often minimize and deny as a way of avoiding things we would rather not see.  At the same time, the opposite is also true:  we may also not evaluate correctly what we see because of fears about our own behavior.

What this points to is the difficulty in accurately assessing behavior toward children, whether sex abuse or other behavior that might seem abusive.  This is of great concern to parents in an age when more and more children are cared for by people other than parents or even family members.  Greater recognition must be given to the stress that can go with the care of children whether by parents or others.  This is particularly important now that so much emphasis is placed on early preschool and daycare.

Perhaps one answer might be to put less focus on criminalizing behavior and more effort into providing safe environments for children.  In our current age, this requires more than the love and care of parents.