Child Abuse – Do we want an answer or a scapegoat?

Painting of Abused Child

Abused Child

We seem, in the west, to live in a world in which we, adults, believe parents are child abusers, and child abusers are around every corner. Perhaps we have come to that perception because of the meaning we have given the circumstances of our own childhoods. It is true some of us were badly abused as children, some of us moderately abused, some of us more susceptible to even milder abuse, some of us had parents who did not engage with us, some allowed us such latitude that we did not learn boundaries or responsibility or consideration. Many of us, however, had patient, loving parents who encouraged us toward achievement. Some abusive parents also were this. The way the world occurs to many of us as child unfriendly, is mostly untrue. Rather, we allow ourselves to be guided to this belief by a cultural story provided by the media, to avoid looking at our own shortcomings.

To be sure, the nurturing of the child is the cornerstone of a resilient society. Not only because the nurtured child become a more resilient adult, but because the adult who is nurturing has set the benchmark for resilience. Yet there is a paradox between our anger toward child abusers and our ability to nurture. If we take a look at another another benchmark of social resilience, justice, we begin to see the problem more clearly.

A case highlighted in the ‘Slate‘ by Emily Bazelon, in which Drayton Witt, an 18-year-old charged with shaking his 4-month-old son, Steven, to death in 2000, and subsequently convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years, has been found to have ignored the severe ill health of the child including epileptic seizures. There were no other signs of abuse nor any other history of abuse by Drayton on Steven. Now, 12 years later, many doctors allow that a history of illness like Steven’s can account for the subdural and retinal bleeding, and brain swelling, that used to be blamed exclusively on shaken-baby syndrome. Drayton and others like him are still in prison.

The problem is not that doctors once had a particular diagnosis called ‘shaken baby syndrome’, but that the justice process was not able to work in a community environment in which it occurred to doctors, social workers, policemen, jurors, judges, politicians, and a self-righteous community, that the only way a baby could die like that, was by its carer to shake them severe enough to cause a brain injury. Within this occurrence, many intelligent person involved in the case, were unable to apply the standards of justice, to remain open to possibility, to prove without doubt, to weigh up all the evidence.

So the discussion comes full circle. What is it among all of us that allows us to shut off a goodly portion of our reason, when faced with such a major incident, in this case, the death of a child? Is it our care for the child? I propose it is not. After all, the child is dead, and, apart from his well identified health conditions which were treated as well as any caring parents and doctors could find treatment, there was no other real care coming from the community. Real care might have seen wonderful community support for the parents, for the whole of that child’s life. Indeed, if such care was present, the community itself would be fully apprised of the character and behaviour of Drayton Witt towards his child. In fact, the lack of community care is why the community of law professionals and doctors were so lead to shut their minds away from justice. Self-righteousness, and readiness to blame, comes from our own guilt. We do not care. To ‘not care’ is evil. A child died. We feel guilty for not caring.We are evil. We must punish the evil person. Well, not ourselves. But look, here is a scapegoat. We can place all the punishment on him.We can say, “He is Evil”. We can imprison him in his sadness and away from his own progress in life. We can feel well-comforted. We are not evil after all. We, of course, do not care about children. We are still guilty and angry with ourselves about that. But soon we shall find another scapegoat, maybe even someone who really did kill a child, to represent the punishment we believe we deserve. And we will go through that same process until we feel, for a time, well-comforted again.

The lack of a sense of the nurturing of children and families aligns itself with a failure to enact justice in the community. It is best for us to acknowledge that we do not care, that carelessness and injustice is our own problem. Once acknowledged, we might then clearly address whether we want the problem or the answer. If we continue to accept our carelessness, we accept the problem. If we become caring, then the answer has declared itself.


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