Archive for the Category » Abuse and Neglect «

Saturday, December 10th, 2011 | Author: mjward

The sight is not unusual in India. You see a modest-sized motorcycle – not one of your Hogs – weaving in and out of city traffic, passing a bicycle rickshaw here, getting out of the way of a bus there, then squeezing between two cars, swerving around a cow or an inattentive pedestrian. All the while the driver is honking his horn. Perched behind him is his wife, riding side saddle, her sari fluttering in the breeze. In her arms she holds a baby. An older child is perched in front of the driver and a third clings to her mother’s back. If anyone is wearing a helmet, it is the father. 

Then I think of North America’s seat-belt laws and child safety seats within the protective shell of an automobile. I think of children wearing bicycle helmets. India seems such a different world, so careless of its women. Especially careless of the young. Yet you see parents cuddling a baby and playing with a toddler. And you know that they love and value their children.

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011 | Author: mjward

Do you remember playing sexual exploration games when you were a child? I do. Many were of the type “if you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.” At what point does normal curiosity become abuse? For many years, as the awareness of father-daughter incest grew, sexual abuse by siblings was under the radar. Even now, it still does not raise the same concern as the former, though it is in fact probably more common.

Most research and discussion on sibling abuse has used a deficit model focused on problems within families rather than on their strengths. Professionals discuss sibling incest as part of a family pattern of abuse and neglect. Often there is a sexualized atmosphere in the family. Perhaps parents engage in sexual activity in front of their children or perhaps they have extramarital affairs. Children are more likely to witness such acts or to have access to pornography if living quarters are cramped. Some parents give older children too much responsibility for the care of younger siblings. Often such a child assumes authority over younger siblings and even cares for parents, but has undeveloped social skills and may exercise power through violence and intimidation. Sexual abuse of younger siblings can be one expression of this power. Abuse occurs more often if children are neglected or have insufficient supervision. Neglect, in turn, may bring inadequate upbringing, including a lack of or inappropriate sex education. Most of these factors are made worse if parents feel overwhelmed.

Marsha L. Heiman’s 1988 paper in Bank and Lewis’ book Siblings in Therapy sets out four preconditions for sibling incest. First, the brother or sister must want to be abusive. This factor includes sexual arousal, poor social skills in filling the desire in appropriate ways, and poor understanding of sexuality. Second, the abuser must overcome inhibitions, which include social taboos against sexual relations with close family members. In adoption, foster care and stepfamilies, children without a biological relationship or common history are thrust together. Thus the taboo might not operate in respect to the new sibling. Third, the child must overcome outside barriers such as close supervision. If parents are unsuspecting or do not care, they may not be watchful. Finally, the abuser needs to overcome the victim’s resistance through bribes, threats, or other forms of force.

Most interventions and therapies rely on the deficit view of the family. However, such an approach is not appropriate for many families that are otherwise pretty healthy. This includes adoptive or foster ones. Many families have weak points in recognizing sibling sexual abuse. Some have an “it can’t happen in our family” belief. They may not be aware of the physical and behavioral signs that abuse might be occurring. Or they may be unsure of the border between normal exploration and play and sexual abuse. Adoptive parents I interviewed were told only after their new son had molested two cousins that he had been sexually abused by his father. His foster mother said he hadn’t shown inappropriate sexual behavior in her home, though she had needed to stop him from aggressively tickling another child. His adoptive mother was certain in hindsight that the tickling had been sexually motivated. Third, parents are worried about the repercussions of reporting suspected sibling abuse. They fear, often realistically, that their family may be broken up by the authorities. A therapy model that looks at family weaknesses rather than family strengths is further inhibiting because parents believe they are blamed for their children’s actions.

What then can be done to prevent sibling sexual abuse and to help families when such abuse occurs?

Knowledge is the first line of defense. Parents need education in the signs that abuse may be occurring. It may be difficult to distinguish emotional reactions to abuse from changes in behavior that result from the family upheaval following the adoptive or foster placement of an older child or following the formation of a stepfamily. Parents also need to know how to prevent sexual abuse from occurring. A pamphlet on parenting the sexually abused child, published a number of years ago by the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse provides guidelines. Some precautions are common sense. Privacy in bedrooms and bathrooms should be enforced. If children share rooms, then boys and girls should not be in each others’. Public nakedness or near-nakedness should be discouraged for both parents and children. Suggestive or obscene language needs to be vetoed. Aggressive wrestling or tickling may have sexual overtones. Children should receive appropriate sex education. They also need to learn to differentiate between feelings and behavior.

If sibling sexual abuse occurs in spite of education and parents’ preventive efforts, interventions should draw on the strengths of the family, rather than looking for weaknesses. All family members need support, parents and children, victims and offenders alike. Blame should be kept to the minimum, with a focus on what actions need to take place. First, it is important to ensure the safety of all the children in the family, including the one who has offended. Reporting to authorities must occur as legally mandated. If feasible, the family should be preserved. A conference of the family and support individuals, including agency personnel, relatives, and friends, may come up with creative solutions. For example, the offending child may be placed with a relative or in a care facility without severing ties with his or her family. Such an arrangement does not preclude reintegration into the family, if circumstances change. Whatever the solution, the family needs to be vitally involved. There are, of course, no easy answers.



Caffaro, J. (2011). Sibling violence and systems-oriented therapy. In J. Caspi (Ed.), Sibling development: Implications for mental health practitioners (pp. 245-272). New York: Springer.

Heiman, M. L. (1998). Untangling incestuous bonds: The treatment of sibling incest. In M. D. Kahn & K. G. Lewis (Eds.). Siblings in therapy: Life span and clinical issues (pp. 135-166). New York: W. W. Norton.

Narimanian, R., & Rosenzweig, J. (n.d.). Parenting the sexually abused child. Washington, DC: National Adoption Information Clearinghouse.

National Clearinghouse on Family Violence. (n.d.). Sibling sexual abuse: A guide for parents. Ottawa: Public Health Agency of Canada.

Wiehe, V. R. (2002). What parents need to know about sibling abuse: Breaking the cycle of violence. Springville, UT: Bonneville Books.

Thursday, November 04th, 2010 | Author: mjward

We’ve all seen and heard the stories. The news blares out the death of a child at the hands of a parent. Day after day, month after month we hear the pathetic details as the case is investigated, and the perpetrator is charged, tried, and convicted.

In Tucson, Arizona, Ariana and Tyler Payne, aged three and four, were in the care of their father, although their mother had legal custody. They disappeared during the summer of 2006. Ariana’s body was found on February 17, 2007, in a plastic tub that had been kept at a storage unit. Tyler’s was never found. Their father confessed to starving the children. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. In Toronto, Ontario, a teacher noticed whip marks on seven-year-old Randal Dooley. The vice-principal called the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) to report abuse. Randal was left with his family. Some months later, he was found dead of head injuries. His stepmother and father were convicted of second-degree murder in 2002. In both the Payne and Dooley cases, police and child protection staff were involved. But no one followed up on the Payne children after a first check determined that the children were cared for properly. When they were not allowed to talk with Randal alone, police left the matter to the CAS. In addition, no one followed up on his welfare after the family moved.

Every year, it is estimated that almost 3500 children under the age of fifteen die from abuse and neglect in industrialized countries.* Over 1700 these children die in the United States.** Preschoolers, especially babies, are at the greatest risk because they are the least able to protect themselves or to get help. They also tend to spend more time alone with their parents. Officials, media, and the public look for someone to blame for these tragedies. Many of the children, like Ariana, Tyler, and Randal, are known to child welfare authorities before their deaths. What went wrong? Why didn’t a child protection worker step in and remove the children from their homes before they became a tragic statistic? New laws are often passed setting out stricter rules and demanding greater vigilance by authorities. They don’t always work.

Often the situation is complex and has many uncertainties. Child protection workers are called on to assess both the danger and risk to the child. Is the child in immediate danger of harm if he or she is left with parents? Is the child at risk of harm sometime in the future? Both of these questions call for judgment calls on the part of the worker. Sometimes agency staff don’t use the same working definitions of “danger” and “risk.” Several questionnaires and check lists have been developed to help front-line workers with their assessments. But these are not perfect and do not provide an exact rating system and depend to a degree on the worker’s judgment. This is based both on education and experience. Some parents and other caregivers are expert at fooling others. They may appear to be competent and attentive adults to outsiders, but secretly pose a lethal risk to children in their care. In addition, budget cutbacks have reduced already scanty financial allotments for child protection. Therefore agency staff are burdened with such high caseloads that they may miss signs that suggest that the child is in danger. The situation is made worse when police officers and child protection staff don’t communicate and cooperate to keep children as safe as possible.

In fact, no set of criteria can accurately predict which children will die at the hands of family members or be critically injured. One study** using the best standards known to professionals found that less than one-quarter of the children predicted to have a fatality or near-fatality actually did so. That means that over three-fourths of the children in suspicious cases were not severely injured. Does this mean that all those deemed to be at severe risk should be removed from their families? Imagine the public outcry over “baby-snatching.” The public purse could not afford substitute care for all these children. Separation from parents also takes its toll on children’s well-being.

A Canadian study*** points out that a focus on the failures of the child welfare system ignores underlying problems. For example, the family may experience the stress of poverty or be recent immigrants without a helpful support system. In one situation, a young stepmother struggled to care for a baby, Sophia, that her husband had fathered with another woman while he lived with his wife. She had three children under six to care for as well as Sophia. The family situation became increasingly tense when her husband was laid off. The mother looked for help from a number of organizations, but the needed resources were not available. She asked her husband to leave and take Sophia with him. The nine-month-old baby died before anyone found a solution.

There are no simple solutions to the threat of child endangerment. Saving children in danger demands the vigilance and best efforts of everyone involved. Even then there will probably be failures when these efforts fail.


* UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre. (2003). A league table of child maltreatment deaths in rich nations (Innocenti Report Card, Issue No. 5). Florence, Italy: Author.

**Huebner, R. A., Webb, T., Brock, A., & Rock, S. (2010). Using models of lethality to enhance child welfare risk and safety assessment. Protecting Children, 25(3), 76-89.

*** Mennill, S., & Strong-Boag, C. (2008). Identifying victims: Child abuse and death in Canadian families. Canadian Bulletin of Medical History/Bulletin canadien d’histoire de la médicine, 25, 311-333.

Sunday, March 14th, 2010 | Author: mjward

Many consider pets to be family members. Often people find comfort in them when something goes wrong in their lives. Like other family members, pets are also affected by physical abuse.

The relationship between human and animal abuse in families is complex. First, pets can be injured as part of the abuse of children and partners. For example, a husband can harm his wife’s puppy as a way of terrorizing her. Second, researchers have found that pets and children are both attacked in abusive families. Third, abusers may coerce children to take part in sexual abuse and to keep quiet about it by threatening to hurt their pets. Fourth, children may take out their anger and frustration about their own abuse on their pets. They learn to use violence by seeing it. Fifth, children may believe they are expendable if their pets are. In fact, when a pet is injured, it is important to look into the possibility physical or emotional abuse involving human family members.

Often women who are victims of assault are caught between the need to go to a shelter for their own safety and the fear that leaving their pets behind can mean the animals’ injury or death. Some women stay in abusive homes to protect their pets, leaving themselves and their children at risk of further abuse. The American Humane Association is advocating the PAWS program–Pets and Women’s Shelters, where abused women can go along with their pets. Organizers believe that, if women know that their pets are safe, they will seek safety for themselves.