Child Abuse: A Time for Deconstruction and Engagement

The politics of child abuse is no different from the politics of human rights, women’s rights etc, etc. I use the word politics in the sense of labels we use to divide people: to elevate the rights of our preferred set of human beings to a pedestal far above everything else, to isolate them and then demand that they be protected. This disproportionate and extremist approach to rights is due to an inability to see rights in perspective. The foundation for all human rights is the spirit of brotherhood mentioned in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our humanity enjoins us not only to be human and defend human rights but also to be brothers and sisters to all our fellow human beings – not only to those on ‘our’ side of the divisions we have erected with our biases and prejudices. Whilst we do have individuals who champion ‘their’ constituency in Sri Lanka it is important to challenge them to step out and view the totality of life with its rich network of human relationships.

Let us focus on the manner the suffering of abused children has become the magnet for yet another division and conflict between man and man in society.

To designate an abused child as a helpless victim and proclaim that she is ‘scarred for life’ is to confer that child with a status and a fixed identity. Such a fixed identity may not be true of all children at the receiving end of different forms and degrees of the phenomena gathered under the phrase child abuse and neglect.

Now a label or status affixed to any group of human beings must be subjected to close scrutiny, for it may conceal the human need for convenience and black and white explanations. It also conceals the want of true understanding and becomes a myth or generalization. A ‘myth’ according to the Penguin Pocket English Dictionary is:

A belief subscribed to uncritically by an interested group of persons.

In short this is about the attempt to champion one group of human beings to the exclusion of everyone else. No one can be a true champion of a particular set of human beings unless they also acknowledge without qualification that other human beings also matter. If you get too close to one set of human beings you distance yourself from others. Extreme love for children leads to aversion towards adults and extreme love for women leads to aversion towards men. Very often this form of extremism may be a cover for your own emotional poverty and your need for security and a sense of importance.

From the point of view of the child this foisted identity is an assumption or imposition that totally denies his or her growing autonomy and resilience – the most important factor in recovering from abuse. In short, the child is treated as an object to be protected rather than a dynamic human being with both rights and relationships that must be respected. The former view with its limited vision of idiot compassion has resulted in abused children being dragged before police stations and courts, subjected to merciless cross examination and separated from their loved ones and thrown into State Homes for children, most of which are virtual prisons. Within the black and white dynamic of ‘child abuse’ it is the contest that matters – the contest between good and evil where the offender is prosecuted and punished to be ‘taught a lesson.’ The child is a mere witness in this ‘big drama’ where there are plenty of other heroes – police officers, prosecutors, judges and child rights advocates. When the ‘criminal case’ is over the child is left to the mercies of an under-staffed and under-resourced Department of Probation and Child Care Services – a second class Government Department for second class children.

This separation and isolation of the child also denies the power of protective relationships – within the family and the community by invoking the magic wand of coercive state power in the form of police action. The result is to confer the State with a burden beyond its limited capacity.

The solution appears to lie in deconstructing the myth of abuse and engaging with its reality. This must be done in a spirit of openness and detached objectivity by shedding our habitual prejudices and pre-conceptions. Relating to the peculiar facts and circumstances surrounding individual children in individual families will help us to avoid the two extremes of under protection and over protection. Over-reacting to child abuse is as harmful – to the child and the child’s relationships as not reacting at all.

It is true that child abuse has generated more heat than light in this country. Greater importance has been given to punishing offenders than taking care of the long terms needs of children. As in so many other issues people find it easier to blame some one rather than take responsibility for the painstaking and ordinary task of helping those who have fallen by the wayside. What is unacceptable is the persistent neglect of the same children, whose cases receive prominence for a day in court and a day in the media, after they are handed over to under-resourced homes administered by Probation and Child Care.

What with all the ‘officers,’ ‘laws,’ ‘courts,’ ‘institutions,’ ‘international conventions’ and countless ‘human rights’ we now have certain fundamentals appear to have been forgotten.

In a human society there are people who need help. Then there are people who are capable of providing that help. What we need between these two groups is good communication. Good communication is based on trust and the respect earned by trust and these things make up a human relationship. Trust is developed over time and it is won with patience and consistency. There is a simple model that summarizes the essence of the spirit of brotherhood when dealing with our fellow beings. It refers to 3 inter-dependent and inter-connected duties.

  • Duty of communication
  • Duty of understanding
  • Duty of accurate empathy

This ensures that the recipients of help get what they need as opposed to what the helper wants to give. Our approach to abused and neglected children is based today on what we want to give them according to the way we have organized society. This is the narrow charity and hand out approach guided by our own need to feel that we are ‘doing something’ rather than a truly intelligent assessment of the situation and a willingness to change the way we live and work.

After the Tsunami for example the magic word was counseling. Whenever we are faced with an issue we simply add to the existing disorganized service provision without effecting some radical changes to the way we work. In short we need to do less – not more and do what we do well. The emphasis must turn from quantity to quality.

Because professionals have no time to listen we turned to counseling. And because counselors are too busy listening to offer practical help we will turn to social workers. The only way out of this vicious cycle is to return to fundamentals.

Human values can only make sense if we institutionalize them in a way that those who come for help are listened to and made true partners in a journey to recovery and reintegration. Instead we make them dependent; dis-empower them and take decisions on their behalf and end up messing everything.

There is a framework provided by modern social work which has institutionalized the spirit of brotherhood. Within it the philosophy and responsibility is well defined.

Human beings are autonomous and they move towards greater autonomy in their own way. Others can only help this process by understanding them within a reliable and trusted relationship. This relationship can take years but it must in some way move the recipient of help towards greater autonomy. The helper may not live to see the journey completed. But the most important thing is that the recipient should have another human being by his side. Once the recipient achieves a measure of confidence and self esteem the helper can move away.

In child protection we are dealing with an intensely human and emotional matter. If we are to stop harming and start helping these children, we must engage with it in a holistic and professional way.

The modern definition of a professional must be a human being who sees, understands and deals with the full picture that is life. This may be a dream today but it is a dream worth dreaming if we really want to organize ourselves better to ensure the human rights of children who have none.