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PrattTribune - Pratt, KS
  • Dr. Elaine Heffner: The reality of child abuse

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  • Stories about child abuse, sexual or otherwise, are often sensationalized by the media and have received much attention with the Internet making access to and the spread of child pornography easier. Parents are concerned about the potential for children to be lured into dangerous situations as a consequence.
    A new book, “The Witch-Hunt Narrative” by Ross Cheit, professor of public policy at Brown University, examines the way the reality of social issues can be obscured by sensationalized reporting, preventing accurate understanding of a problem. At issue is a series of child sex abuse cases during the 1980s.
    Cheit is writing about two narratives that were the result of the initial panic created by these cases. The first narrative resulting from the reporting was that sex abuse was widespread, reflecting moral decline. Although seven people were indicted in the famous McMartin case, after years of investigation and prosecution, the case ended without a single conviction.
    As questions arose about the original reporting, Cheit sees a new narrative taking over. This narrative was that sensationalized reporting had created a witch hunt that exaggerated the extent of the problem. Also, that children who testified were not reliable and were easily swayed by prosecutorial suggestion.
    The question raised by Cheit is whether the new witch hunt narrative reflects reality any more than the original narrative. His thesis is that neither narrative accurately reflects reality, and both narratives have prevented a true understanding of the problem. How to bring about reasoned discussion of a social problem in this new media age is an important question. One question has to do with the reliability of children’s testimony, not necessarily only in a court of law.
    Much has been learned about the questioning of children, their suggestibility and potential for saying what adults want to hear and that even when abused, children are protective of their parents denying that any abuse has occurred. At the same time, even observers may misinterpret interactions they witness between parents and children. One parent’s discipline may look abusive to another.
    Many parents can identify with the kind of situations that cause parents to “lose it.” Leading parent groups, I found that a theme emerged whenever a case was reported in the press. Mothers sought to distance themselves from the behavior described, reassuring themselves that they could never engage in such acts.
    Parents could identify with feelings that can be overpowering and frightening at times. The fear is that the feelings might lead to aggressive behavior that might harm their children. Fortunately, most parents have sufficient control mechanisms in place that prevent the kind of behavior that would match the strength of the feelings.
    Cheit points out that we often minimize and deny as a way of avoiding things we would rather not see. At the same time, the opposite is also true: We may also not evaluate correctly what we see because of fears about our own behavior.
    Page 2 of 2 - What this points to is the difficulty in accurately assessing behavior toward children that might seem abusive. This is of great concern to parents in an age when more children are cared for by people other than parents or family members. Greater recognition must be given to the stress that can go with the care of children whether by parents or others, particularly now that so much emphasis is placed on early preschool and daycare.
    Perhaps one answer might be to put less focus on criminalizing behavior and more effort into providing safe environments for children. In our age, this requires more than the love and care of parents.
    Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.

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