Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Public Displays of Child Abuse

SaraKay Smullens is a social worker, family therapist and author who practices in Philadelphia. She is our guest blogger for today.

It is a moment etched forever. My husband and I were in a New York theater; it was intermission. Returning to my seat I saw a woman about a decade younger than I am. She was kissing an adolescent seductively on the neck, as she rubbed her back. The young girl pulled away, and the woman slapped her hard across the face. I had no idea of the history of this adult and child. Was the older woman a mother, a caretaker? I waited until I saw where both were seated and left the theater to call the police. By the time they arrived, the play was over, and I could not find either the older woman or the adolescent.

This incident unnerved me because I have worked for so long with children and teenagers who suffer at the hands of both caretakers and family members. I know one thing for sure: abusive parents grew up in abusive homes. Without intervention, these cycles of abuse intensify as generations pass. Children in abusive homes are in danger, and unless the parents receive intensive help which they have taken seriously and to heart, that will not change.

If you witness child abuse, call the police or the department of human services in your area. Many have a child abuse hot line. These families need a lot of help. Over the years, I have urged our city officials and those leading child welfare programs to train a team of professionals—lawyers, police, physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, therapists—that a vulnerable family could rely on, a team that could be there for them 24/7 when they face inner terrors or dangerous choices. And I have urged also that experienced supervisors be there with consistency for this team because working with these families is draining, unnerving and unsettling.

For the sad reality is that some biological parents can not or will not ever know how to provide homes that are safe and caring. While no one likes to see children separated from their parents, sometimes there is no better solution than finding a loving family to adopt the child and give him or her a better life. When adoption is necessary, the family and the child do not require an exact cultural match. What is necessary is a home offering love and safety. What better example of this than our 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, who spent the bulk of his formative years cared for, protected and loved by his white maternal grandparents.

Meanwhile, if you witness an incident not sufficient for police or child welfare agency intervention, but nonetheless disturbing, there is something you can do. For instance, if you see a mom demeaning a child in a public place, it is probably not smart for you to confront the mom immediately. I suggest waiting until things have settled down. At that time, you can approach the parent and say something like, “I have been noticing what a beautiful child you have. You are just so fortunate.” The parent may be stunned at your kindness and the compliments you offer. And you may be putting a drop of kindness into a painful void that could help the parent see her child and herself in a new light.

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