Identifying Child Abuse
by Dr. Katherine Andre
Understanding forms of child abuse is a community responsibility. When parents harm children, as when a Clearlake resident drove his Ford Explorer into the lake with his 2-year-old daughter inside, the community grieves. We react with shock, helplessness, anger and sadness, and wonder what could have caused such an act. Some of us may dismiss it as a man who was ³crazy,² criminal, on drugs or acting totally out of character. Others will look for answers in order to stop future harm to other children in our community. Whatever the reasons for the act, they will not likely make sense to the rest of us nor justify how a father could commit this ultimate act of betrayal and abuse against his own child. But remember statistics indicate most perpetrators of child abuse, maltreatment and neglect are family members. If we hold to the belief that itıs family business, not our business, then there would be no protective interventions, no healing and no consequences for abusers.
There are other forms of child abuse in which parents harm children, such as sexual abuse, which have received a lot of attention. As a community seeking answers to prevent harm to future children, here is information about two less-familiar phenomenons, which harm children: parent physical child abduction and parent psychological abduction. Family or parent child abduction is recognized as a national problem, and has been on the increase since the mid-1970s.
When a parent, usually in the context of contentious divorce, forcibly leads away a child from his/her other parent, and moves to a new and undisclosed location, abduction has resulted. Many cases of abduction occur as a result of one parent feeling entitled to ³save² the child from the other parent, often instilling fear into the child to justify or legitimatize his/her own actions. Nevertheless, the ³saving² is at the expense of the child who is denied the healthy experiences and nurturing of the other parent. Dr. Janet Johnston and Dr. Linda Girdner researched the profile of a parent likely to abduct and came up with six risk factors, among them sociopathy, paranoia, and suspicious and distrustful behavior due to beliefs that the other parent is abusive.
Abducted children are at risk for many psychological disorders, including PTSD, loss of self-esteem and attachment disorders. They also experience guilt and grief for the absent parent and their old identity. They are often neglected in terms of psychological nurturing and suffer depression, loneliness, anger and helplessness. If left untreated, they are vulnerable to becoming adults without conscience and lacking in empathy and care for others, as well as other having relational and psychological difficulties. In addition to physical abduction, psychological abduction is another way parents harm their own children.
Just about everyone has heard of or knows a parent whose once-loving child has rejected him or her. Few know the name of this syndrome. The term for it is less than three decades old, but its occurrence is longstanding. It was first written about in the divorce literature by Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D. and Joan Kelly, Ph.D. in 1980 as a pathological alignment or relationship between an angry divorcing parent and his or her child. Gardner described the pathological alignment as ³Parental Alienation Syndrome² (PAS).
PAS can be unintentional or intentional. When unintentional, educating the alienating parent about the harmful effects to children and behaviors which create it usually stop it. The child is permitted by both parents to love equally and has the opportunity for development similar to the healthy development of children from intact homes. When the alienation is intentional, it becomes a programming process which can take years to culminate in PAS. In its mild form, PAS may be seen simply as reluctance to visit. In its moderate form, relationships become polarized and children make one parent good and one bad. Estimates are that PAS affects 50,000 new children every year. Alienators will set up tests of confusion and loyalty, such as when the child is given verbal permission to see a parent, but gets contradictory messages that it is not OK. Alienators collude with children to reject the discipline in the targeted parentıs home. Alienators are often joined by family members who help to indoctrinate the child. Some researchers who study the phenomena liken it to cult behavior.
Successful therapy involves giving the child the tools to identify the themes and then the confrontational strength to stop the abuse. Talk therapy is not usually successful with PAS, but like other forms of child abuse, educational, legislative and community mandates to recognize and stop abuse is. It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. As such, it is the communityıs responsibility to protect its children from all forms of abuse.
The future health of our society depends upon the emotional and mental health of our children. We cannot bring back the 2-year-old girl who died but we can look around us and say no to abuse when we see it. Our future depends on it, and our communityıs children depend on us.