Sunday, May 17, 2009

Child abuse: Not understood at all, but affecting every human rights issue

***for anyone just discovering this blog, check out my first post here, "Introductions, concepts, and beginnings of a fight"

Child abuse: beyond law and people’s

We have an inadequate concept of what child abuse looks like. We wouldn't recognize an abusive parent if we saw one. They look exactly the same as non-abusive parents to anyone who does not live in the home. Any friend, co-worker, or boss whom you know has children at home might be abusing them, and you'd never know it from what you see in your friend, co-worker, or boss's persona when their in front of you.

I'm not saying we should start spying on parents. The law should only intervene and investigate if there is probably cause to think that abuse is happening in the home. But the law's definition of abuse is confined to certain behaviors, mostly physical, and does not cover the full range of ways that a parent can psychologically, emotionally, and financially manipulate their child
throughout the child's life and adult life.

Yes, abused children could be adults, middle-aged adults, maybe older if the parents are still living. We don't think an aging parent is of any harm to anyone, and we look down on adults who put "stick" their parents in a nursing home. We see the tears of the aging parent who wonders why the child has abandoned them.

But we don't often see the domestic realities such as when fictional character Ruth, from Six Feet Under has a flashback while caring for her mentally-ill husband George played by actor James Cromwell. In the scene, George is looking in refrigerator and Ruth wonders if he needs help. He says he's fine, but Ruth has a flashback to a time past when she was caring for an
aging relative (maybe mother, but I'm not sure) and she is mean, scowling...and a double amputee in a wheelchair. That last description naturally gets nothing but sympathy from people, and that's a good thing. But we also see the angry "get me this thing now!" with connotations that "you're useless!" "I wasted my life on you!" snaps Ruth and she submits "I'll get it for you!", but that old woman's not in the room. It's only George. Ruth is traumatized and that trauma was one reason why she had such a hard time emotionally trying to care for George.

That old mother/aunt may be dead, but she left her legacy on Ruth's psyche. Consider how fractured Ruth would be if the mother were still living, still demanding, still using those emotional strings of guilt, co-dependence, and "you owe me for putting my whole life into you" mentality that abusive parents hold on to and act out each day on their children, throughout
all stages of the child's life.

Abusive parents are often not caught. That is why the abuse remains and becomes a normal part of the family life and culture. Parents may hit or threaten to hit when the children are children, but the parents might reserve their physical energies when the child is no longer small enough to physically over-power. Words and controlling rules are the weapons of choice when children are bigger. And when the parents are no longer hitting, what can the police

A cop once told me that you can't arrest them on "clashing opinions on life". I'd understand the reasons police and lawmakers are reluctant to make words and arguments punishable offenses. We don't want police raids every time parents and kids argue. I have heard stories of small school kids calling social services merely because the teacher/counselor punished them appropriately. I don’t want to create over-expansive laws, but I do want people and communities to do what they can, using every legally allowable way to help victims escape their abusive parents.

People have power with or without the police. The approval of police or courts was not needed for society to condemn OJ Simpson (Not taking a position on his court ruling). It requires no laws or police for people to give sympathy to children of any age, and deny it to abusive parents.

Lack of understanding, sympathy, and empathy for victims

I once told people online, the legal website Free Advice, about my situation. I could understand “you don’t have a case”. I could understand “it’s not severe enough”. What I got was “grow up” “you’re an ingrate; let your generous parents adopt me”, and my favorite “we’re giving you tough love”. That was two years ago.

There are many people who believe similar things about school bullies, including those that target victims for homophobic, transphobic, or sexist reasons. And there are also those that advocate for “parental authority”, and thus support mandatory parental permission slips for students joining gay-straight alliances, teenagers seeking abortion, students having sex education, confidential health counseling, etc. These things make me question whether
parents are really about “what’s best” for their children, or merely their children’s obedience. Surely parents will say that they are acting out of what’s best, and they will usually believe it. The question is, should we believe it?

Some would think we are obligated to believe it. Why? Because parents have a right to raise their children. Because we should “not give up on the parents”. Because parents deserve the benefit of the doubt. Because parents “always” want what’s best for their children. A college dean once told me that any parent’s love is “infinite”. Yet, despite all these superhuman virtues, we are asked to “forgive our parents” or remember that they are “only human” when they do make mistakes.

Even that word “make mistakes” may be too weak. One of my creative writing teachers told the class his thoughts after hearing the student stories of how each of their parents did not like their career plans. First off, he showed no sign of agreeing with these parents that their kids were on the wrong path, so he seemed a good listener for these kids in that sense. But his words showed his ignorance. In the midst of the students’ stories, he said “they really do want the best for you”. At the end of the students’ stories, he said: “I want to say this: parents love their children - more than life. Their gonna fuk up”. I guess I have to give him kudos for using the words “fuk up” than some euphemism like “mistake”. I’m still upset that he was laughing throughout. Then again so were the kids. It’s possible that, if I had more details about their lives, that I could conclude that the parents were not far enough on the spectrum to be considered abusive (and remember I’m not holding myself to legal definitions of abuse or even standard therapists’ definitions). But I got a bad taste in my mouth. I’ve been eating cupcakes and gaining weight ever since.

I also suspect dysfunctional family comedies like Everybody Loves Raymond, Everybody
Hates Chris
, The War at Home, and Arrested Development. I don’t like the character of the father who doesn’t want his daughter to “date until she’s married” (Oscar Proud, father of the cartoon family, The Proud Family). Obviously this type of fathering is found in purity-ring pacts that daughters “choose” to make with their fathers (if they want to be good daughters, that is).

The two conflicting desires of every parent

I think every parent posseses two desires: the desire to ensure their child’s welfare and the desire to ensure their child’s obedience. These two can overlap in many cases, as when toddlers are told to stay away from hot irons or when parents tell teenagers to stay from things that are ACTUALLY too dangerous for them, not IMAGINED to be too dangerous. And I say “too dangerous” because teenagers are old enough to start taking some of the risks that come with
living a full happy life. Amanda Marcotte once wrote in, Fear of a MySpace Planet, that consensual sex was one of those things teenagers not be barred from by their parents. I’m not 100% sure I agree with that, but she made great points, and it’s worth reading and researching.

But the question is, when the two desires conflict with each other, which will the parent choose? The thing is, a parent will never openly say, “I choose obedience over my child’s welfare”. And likely they themselves would never believe that about themselves. More likely that intentional controlling, they are inclined to control based on the life history and upbringing they had which programmed them with their worldviews of what is and isn’t right, wrong, safe, dangerous, worth going for, not worth going for, useful, useless, acceptable, indecent, etc, etc. And I say programmed because these worldviews are not likely to be reversed by the words of their children who have just arrived in the parents' life after they’ve had decades of solidification of their worldview from the decades before their children were even conceived. And don’t expect these parents to “listen” to their children because the children “don’t know better”. It’s not that these parents are not following standards of accountability. It’s that they are following standards of accountability which are totally wrong (or half right) and they believe, with 100% certainty that lasts forever, that their standards are right.

This is what I mean when I say parents are inclined to be abusive, even while not intending to be. But the main point is that the abuse has the same damaging psychological or physical effects, as if the abuse was intentional. This is why we cannot let intentions be the defining characteristic of what defines abusive behavior.

Victims’ responsibilities only go so far

It is certainly true that any victim of lifelong child abuse, must do the hard work of finding employment and an apartment where they can pay the rent. Ultimately I hope a restraining order is possible, and I have started researching such possibilities. But when the police can’t help you, and you have no other place, you have to find one. Of course, it is much, much harder to make that transition to employment-plus-new-place than it is to spit out the insensitive phrase, “get a job and grow up”. If walking away from an abuser’s wallet was as easy as walking out of the house, I’d be there by now.

And we should expect many more abuse victims to remain with their abusers in
this economy.

This is as much as I can say right now. More will have to be in another
post. There is so much, too much to tell.

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