Who should tell?

The Compass - - ORTHTE -

San­dusky, Boy Scouts Canada, and re­vived mem­o­ries of Mount Cashel and the Ro­man Catholic church – there are a lot of peo­ple read­ing and think­ing about child sex­ual abuse these days.

We’ve come a long way since the coverups of ear­lier decades, but as the Scouts Canada con­tro­versy shows, many peo­ple still don’t un­der­stand how or why child sex­ual abuse is re­ported.

There seems to be a mis­con­cep­tion that a child is abused, tells a trusted adult, and the sit­u­a­tion is dealt with in the courts and through the ju­di­cial sys­tem. In ac­tual fact only a small per­cent­age of chil­dren dis­close their abuse in child­hood. And of those that do, a large per­cent­age are faced with an adult who ei­ther doesn’t be­lieve them, doesn’t re­spond ap­pro­pri­ately, or doesn’t take the re­quired ac­tion.

“Why didn’t they tell?” is a com­mon re­ac­tion to al­le­ga­tions of past sex­ual abuse. Some even take the po­si­tion that if a child didn’t tell when it was hap­pen­ing, then it is pos­si­ble it never hap­pened at all. Mar­ket­ing cam­paigns aimed at chil­dren – badly aimed in the opin­ion of one sur­vivor – tell chil­dren to dis­close. But we have done lit­tle as a so­ci­ety to ad­dress the real is­sue – that of the by­standers who sus­pect but never say a word.

In her essay on the sub­ject, Good Men Project con­trib­u­tor Gretl Claggett wrote “’But why didn’t you say some­thing?’ peo­ple ask; and, un­in­ten­tion­ally or not, their tone of­ten in­crim­i­nates. Per­haps that’s be­cause they only see me, the adult—not the five, nine or 13-year-old I once was. While ‘good touch, bad touch’ talks may help, chil­dren can’t be expected to carry the burden of aware­ness and preven­tion.”

And yet this is of­ten what we ask and even ex­pect them to do. We’ve all seen the ads di­rected at chil­dren telling them that they should tell some­one about their abuse. But as one sur­vivor says, “no child would notice those ads. There are no flashy colours, bright toys, tasty treats. When I was a kid I no­ticed Tou­can Sam and the Co­cop­uffs rab­bit, not some sad-eyed kid talk­ing on the TV.”

And no ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign will ever make up for all the in­hi­bi­tions against dis­clo­sure.

As that same sur­vivor, who choses to re­main anony­mous says “Child­hood is a con­fus­ing time. We’re told that hit­ting isn’t right but our par­ents spank us and friends hit us and no one suf­fers any reper­cus­sions. We’re told that steal­ing isn’t right, but Daddy brings home pens from the of­fice and Mommy picks up a dime dropped in a park­ing lot. There’s no gray zone in a child’s mind. What adults do is right. What they say is hardly ever true. Even if an adult had sat down with me and said ‘no one should ever touch you like that,’ I would’ve taken it in the same way I took in state­ments that my broth­ers shouldn’t hit me. They did. That was life. Should and shouldn’t didn’t en­ter into it.

And the fact is, be­tween abuses, I didn’t think about it. Or tried not to. If my abusers weren’t around, I could live a ‘nor­mal’ life. And if they were around, they were sur­rounded by adults that fa­cil­i­tated them and turned a blind eye. Of course I knew it was wrong. It hurt. It ter­ri­fied me. But so did get­ting my scraped knee cleaned. I could nor­malise the ex­pe­ri­ence. I had to in or­der to sur­vive.”

Ex­pect­ing chil­dren to dis­close abuse is ridicu­lous. Look­ing at the num­bers from Scouts Canada, of 486 cases of abuse re­ported since 1947, 328 were al­ready known to au­thor­i­ties be­fore Scouts Canada be­came aware. Those 328 cases are likely in­stances where an in­di­vid­ual be­came known to au­thor­i­ties through other ac­tions such as pur­chas­ing child pornog­ra­phy, or

In ev­ery case of child sex­ual abuse, there is some­one who knows, who sus­pects, or who just feels funny about it all. Preda­tors groom chil­dren who are eas­ily taken in. They also groom the adults around them by mak­ing it hard to be­lieve they

would do such things.

where an adult came for­ward years later to re­port abuse.

In a study re­leased by Save the Chil­dren Swe­den, ti­tled “Why Didn’t They Tell Us: On Sex­ual Abuse in Child Pornog­ra­phy,” authors looked at the cases of 22 chil­dren who had been sex­u­ally abused and were old enough and phys­i­cally able to talk about it. None of the chil­dren self-re­ported the abuse. Most of them suf­fered at least a year of abuse. “The chil­dren had kept this to them­selves and had not talked about this to par­ents, friends, sib­lings, rel­a­tives or to some other adult. This is a very com­pelling ar­gu­ment that chil­dren do not at all, or very re­luc­tantly, talk about sex­ual abuse. This is also a very for­mi­da­ble con­trast to the idea that chil­dren in­vent or make false ac­cu­sa­tions of sex­ual abuse.”

Authors found that the av­er­age amount of time the chil­dren – and this was a small sub­set of chil­dren whose abuse was later dis­cov­ered with­out them re­port­ing – lived with their “se­cret” was 44 months. Other re­ports and stud­ies have found an av­er­age of five years be­fore a child re­ports any abuse ac­tiv­i­ties. This does not mean that all cases are re­ported within five years, but that of that small per­cent­age of cases that are dis­closed by the vic­tim, it takes ap­prox­i­mately five years for the dis­clo­sure to hap­pen.

Those are not the im­por­tant num­bers, though. The im­por­tant num­bers are those like the 129 files on re­ported abuse from 1947 to 2011 that Boy Scouts Canada never passed on to au­thor­i­ties. Or if that’s too hard to re­mem­ber, think of the num­ber three. Only about one in three chil­dren re­port their abuse. Most have to re­port it to at least three adults be­fore some­one takes ac­tion.

In ev­ery case of child sex­ual abuse, there is some­one who knows, who sus­pects, or who just feels funny about it all. Preda­tors groom chil­dren who are eas­ily taken in. They also groom the adults around them by mak­ing it hard to be­lieve they would do such things. But adults have bet­ter abil­ity to dis­cern when they are be­ing ma­nip­u­lated. Adults have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to care for vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren. Chil­dren do not have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to take care of them­selves.

“I did tell,” one sur­vivor says, “I told one per­son. Maybe I didn’t use the right words. Maybe I didn’t make it clear enough. But what child can make any­thing clear? She didn’t do any­thing about it. I as­sumed no one would. So I just lived with it.”

Chil­dren shouldn’t have to “live with it,” and they shouldn’t be made to feel like it is their re­spon­si­bil­ity to stop it. It is our re­spon­si­bil­ity to step out of the by­stander role and take ac­tion for our chil­dren. Ac­cord­ing to a CBC re­port, of those 129 un­re­ported Boy Scout cases, com­mis­sioner Steve Kent said “We found ex­am­ples of in­di­vid­u­als be­ing un­sure of how to re­port abuse, or whether it was nec­es­sary to re­port. In some cases, an of­fence was thought to be in­ap­pro­pri­ate for a Scouts leader, but not nec­es­sar­ily crim­i­nal in na­ture, and there­fore did not re­quire re­port­ing to au­thor­i­ties.”

That’s not good enough. Maybe in­stead of ask­ing why chil­dren don’t tell and try­ing to teach them to tell, it’s time we con­cen­trated more ef­fort on mak­ing it clear that adults must tell.

Dara Squires is a free­lance writer and mom of three based in Cor­ner Brook. You can contact her on face­book at www.face­book.com/read­ilya­parent

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