The "System" as Perpetrator

James E. Hord, Jr. Ph.D.

Child abuse occurs in many forms but for the purposes of this paper, sexual abuse is the form primarily considered. Child abuse can not be tolerated and there is no question that it produces long term damage in children and subsequently adults. The reader should understand at the onset that nothing in this paper is intended to condone, excuse or to rationalize the impact of abusive activity.

That having been said, I must now say that the area of child abuse is difficult to talk about because of the ingrained dynamics and expectations held by the society in which it occurs. The child comes to us with his own set of cultural values and mores, drawn from the child's individual experiences. This set of experiences creates a cultural sub-set, which is gradually modified as the child interacts with the culture at large.

Next, it is important to recognize that when the child comes to us, he is telling us of behaviors that took place from the reference of his own culture sub-set, which defines much of how he understands his own experience. Often the descriptions from the child clash with the cultural attitudes and expectations of the listener. A child coming out of an impoverished ghetto area describing sexual references within the family, to an interviewer from an upper societal group experience, would encounter some difficulty. The interviewer would experience a different level of emotional response than would an interviewer whose background was more similar to that of the child. When these attitudes and cultural values clash in a detrimental way, it is the child who is further victimized as the result.

One of the first cases of child abuse that I encountered in my professional life occurred at Central State Hospital in Georgia. A young girl of about 14 was hospitalized with acute psychotic symptoms. Fortunately her symptoms dissipated rapidly and she responded well to therapeutic intervention. Her background included being raised as an only child and her parents began involving the her at an early age in their own sexual activities. This evolved into the child being a participant in the sexual activities to the point of intercourse with her father and sexual play with her mother. The child did not report this abuse until a few months prior to her hospitalization. At that point she was mad at her father because he had refused to allow her to participate in a school function that she was anticipating. In retaliation the child told her school counselor about the activities that went on in her home with her father. The father was subsequently arrested, he confessed to the activities and displayed a great deal of apparent remorse. He was tried, sentenced and was subsequently sent to jail.

From his jail cell he wrote a letter to the child, a copy of which was contained in her records at the hospital. In that letter he expressed concern for the welfare of his daughter. He told her that he knew that his behavior was wrong and that it was his fault. He stressed that he did not want the girl to feel guilty about anything that had taken place, that she was only a child and could not know the difference between right and wrong and that he, the father, was the sole one responsible for those activities. He expressed his love for his daughter in what appeared to be genuine terms.

When the child received this letter she was simply emotionally overwhelmed with guilt which led to the development of psychotic symptomatology. It is important to recognize however that she was not reacting to guilt over the activities in which she had participated, but rather guilt of what she had done to her father. She perceived her father to be loving and tender and someone with whom she shared a close relationship that was apparently endorsed by the mother. The reader must assume that this family orientation was the only form of family that the child would have experienced in a primary way. She had no "norm" with which to compare her family system.

What is missing from that scenario, at least in terms of documentation, is the kind of emotional support that would have been displayed to the child by those well meaning caseworkers that dealt with the child upon her disclosure. The implications expressed to the child are almost always in the direction of the perpetrator being bad or evil, the child being victimized and therefore guilt free and the child is portrayed universally as a victim. The problem quite simply is that the child does not always feel like a victim but is suddenly urged to portray the role of victim rather than being labeled as a bad child. Is that fair?

The subtleties involved in this preset loading of attitudes is so strong that one has to wonder what impact the popularity of child abuse issues expressed today may be gradually having on out population. We generally do not speak of appropriate and inappropriate touches but we do speak of good and bad touches. I have been in court many times when part of the "evidence" was that the child was asked had she ever received any bad touches from her father, i.e. had the father ever touched her on her "privates." To this question the child had answered yes and that was taken as evidence of abuse. In fact, in "qualifying" a child as being able to recognize good and bad touches the questions are frequently placed in the form of something like the following:

"If someone touched you on your private areas would that be a good or bad touch?" The child dutifully reports that it would be a bad touch. That is then followed by a question such as "If your mother gave you a hug would that be a good touch or a bad touch?" The child dutifully reports that that would be a good touch. But suppose we also used questions such as "If your mother touched you on your private areas would that be a good touch or a bad touch?" Or "If someone gave you a hug…..?" The issue becomes harder for the child to differentiate the appropriate response, with appropriate being defined as what is to be expected by the interviewer. Or consider, could it be possible that there is a child somewhere who could honestly answer "no" to a question such as, "has (your parent) ever touched your privates?" Parents touch privates. I need not recount the normal situations that involve such contact here.

The point of all of this is that that set of questions has very little to do with sexual abuse and yet they are commonly taken as evidentiary in determining whether abuse has taken place or not. It is confusing for adults, it must be a horrendous area of confusion for a child.

In cases where there is abuse that is accompanied by behaviors that are traumatizing, then there certainly would be less confusion on the part of the victim when they encountered supportive responses from caseworkers when they respond to the child as being victimize, traumatized, frightened, scared, hurt, injured etc. However, a large number of such cases involve sexual abuse by someone close to the child and the abuse takes place not in the form of a forced, traumatic behavior but as a gradually developed pattern of behavior that is best understood under the term seduction. That terminology does not make it any less wrong but it does change the expectations of the concepts held by the child. As the child grows older and encounters other influences from the environment that describes such events the child begins to recognize the clash of values represented by the environment and those represented by the perpetrator. That of course can be very confusing and very damaging as it impacts on the developing self-concept. Those of us working with these sensitive problems should recognize the confusion that is inherent in this experience rather than naively operating on the assumption that we are all working on the same track.

I recall a case worker from another area describing working with a 5-year-old child who had reported being sexually abused by her father or stepfather. He describes spending a session with the child carefully explaining to her that she never had to do those things again, that none of that was her fault, that she was going to be protected, etc… As he walked from the therapy room back into the waiting room the child suddenly turned to the therapist. Then, in the middle of a full waiting room of people she innocently looked up at the examiner and in a loud voice said, "But I like sucking my daddy's dick!"

Why would a 5-year-old child say such a thing? It is doubtful that she would perceive such behaviors as sexual, at least in terms of her enjoyment in anything related to sexuality. It is probable however that she perceives such experiences as being times when she was able to hold her daddy's attention, that she felt close to him because of his attentions to her and that she was made to feel in some way special by the sexual perpetrator. She had not yet begun to recognize the social violation of these events, and the negative factors constituting a betrayal of innocence.  At that time, they were yet positive experiences in this child's perceptions. It must have been very confusing to her to be talking to a kindly male interviewer who is explaining what a terrible experience she had gone through. That in turn created a great deal of confusion, which certainly was mirrored in her statements.

The truth of the matter is that while we lump sexual abuse cases into one category of sexual abuse, there are in fact many unique experiences. Is it possible for a child to experience sexual abuse as a child and not be significantly affected by an adult? Probably not. However, many adults will describe some sexual abuse having been experienced as a child and not be aware of any negative influences or problematic reactions as an adult. Others, who have experienced relatively mild forms of abuse, will report having their adult lives totally ruined by the event, which in many cases was a singular occurrence. Why such a difference in range? I would suggest that it is largely due to the kind of response that the child encountered once the behavior was reported. That is the responsibility of those of us who deal with such cases.

The question would seem to follow as to whether or not there is any acceptable way to approach child abuse victims without introducing our own set of cultural expectations onto those that they have been able to form at their age. The answer of course is yes but must be done with a great deal of care, concern and awareness. Unfortunately, that does not often happen.

When a child reports child abuse, and the society reacts by stepping in and punishing the perpetrator, some residual feelings of guilt will persist in spite of therapeutic efforts. Frequently, we do not understand the nature of this guilt and the degree to which it stems from the child's perception of their wrong doing in making the reports. That is because we do not expect that the child will feel responsible for harming the perpetrator. We are looking at the child's cultural experience from the reference point of our own. However, that guilt becomes a part of the child's basic personality dimensions and stretch into adulthood affecting the development of the individual persona for years to come. It is "illogical", and therefore not recognized in its true form, but it is damaging none-the-less.

Do children lie? Of course they do. However the question is better asked, with what frequency do children lie in reporting child abuse? The answer is seldom. Reasonable estimates seem to fluctuate at 6% or less of all reports are the results of children false reporting what they believe to be true.

The problem that is more critical to this area however, involves the difference between what the child believes and what is in fact accurate. I remember a case that came up over and over for a period of about 4 years, that involved a very young child who reported that when she visited in her father's home, she saw her daddy "playing with himself." Now folks, a young child observing the physical activity of an adult male masturbating, is unlikely to pick that particular description as a way of describing what is being observed! However, in this case the child was seen, interviewed, and was consistent in repeating her belief of what occurred. I became involved only when the office of the governor of the state, requested one final review due to the mothers persistent efforts to protect her daughter. The child, then almost six, still described the experience using the same phrase. However, this little girl clearly had NO IDEA, of what that phrase meant in adult terms. Questions of when, where, what was worn, etc. were all answered, "I don't know" by the child. She had been reinforced with the phrase for her entire life at that point, and she "believed" what she was saying. She simply didn't have concepts of the behavior that she appeared to be describing.

But consider the possible impact on the child, led to make such statements and gradually accepting them as truth, as that child grows old enough to recognize the social meaning of such concepts, and REMEMBERS the things that by this time, have been accepted as true. What distortions of the concepts of the father does this produce? What flawed concepts of self come from a perception of being the product of a flawed parent? What concepts of guilt are we risking as the child has to come to terms with his or her previous behaviors in such reports? There are a lot of bad outcomes here, but for now, just consider the questions.

But it doesn't end there. In order to protect the egos involved in the leading of the child to such statements, the adults must reinforce the concept of inappropriate behaviors by the alleged perpetrator into the future. So the social myth continues to be reinforced, referred to and described. A rift or clash develops between the child's concept of the real person, and the person portrayed in family lore. Confusion results and guilt develops because to support one side of this dilemma, the child must reject the other. Often this selection of sides changes rapidly, depending on which side the child is with at the time. The egos of the adults are satisfied but at the cost of the developing ego of the child. Damaged adults produce damaged children.

Of course the reverse also happens. Often a child-abusing parent is protected by the spouse and family system, who do not want to believe that the abuse is occurring. When that happens, the child can grow up in an environment that eventually the child sees as abusive and "bad", while seeing the family pretend that it is a healthy and normal home. The child subsequently feels victimized, devalued and unable to live up to the expectations of the environment because they are inherently, and secretly, flawed. These children may never develop healthy ego systems, but may instead live out lives with a sense of guilt related to not being what others see them as representing even as adults.

A child in a system where abuse is occurring, is faced with trying to understand a complex, pathological environment.  No one needs rational, sensible guidance more.  When professionals become involved with the helping process, it is incumbent upon us to understand the subtle nuances of the child's perception and therefore experience.  We must be up to that requirement.