Thursday, August 20, 2015

Reporting Child Abuse is a sea full of sharks....beware!

The Ontario College of Teachers’ publication for members carries, in its latest edition, a feature piece on “Protecting the Children” as a way to open the minds of teachers to their legal obligations to report any and all suspicions of child abuse. And we commend the college for its leadership on this issue.
However, (and there is always a but or a however!)  as both a retired career teacher and a survivor of child abuse in my family of origin, I am familiar with the omissions of my generation of teachers who, while we may have reported “child abuse” to the guidance department, rarely if ever did those reports find their way into the offices of the child protection agencies. It was more usual for the child protection agencies to bring child abuse to the attention of the schools and teachers, and even then the fact that a child might be in a foster home would be about as far as the information would go.
One grade twelve co-ed asked to speak to me after class one day, only to sit in her desk, crying as she reported that she had been thrown down the stairs to the basement of her home by her ‘father’ on the previous night. Shocked, I attempted (however lamely!) to comfort her in her obvious and warranted distress, asked her if she had supports to whom she could turn, did her mother know of the incident, and after a few minutes, we both departed, she in shame, embarrassment and a modicum of solace (I hope) and me in more empathy and identification than the student would ever know.
Her courage in bringing the matter to the attention of any person, in any public institution is even today somewhat remarkable, although there is more evidence of similar reportings, as well as more obvious incidents to report. It is the non-reported side of the story that requires our attention here.
Having worn long sleeved shirts and sweaters so school for most of my youth and adolescence, to cover the welts and the bruises on my arms, and to preserve the “family secrets” of what things were really like in our home, I am too familiar with the strategies and the tactics of those in similar situations. Abusive families generate children who are not only ashamed and frightened and tenaciously holding a pervasive internal question, “What is wrong with me?” or “Why is this happening to me?” or “What have I done to deserve this?”....the precise form may differ but the cracks and the erosion in self-respect and self-esteem are deep and permanent. Of course, the bruises and the welts heal and disappear, and permit short-sleeved tee’s and shirts. But long after the welts, the self-analysis often morphing into self-absorption as another route to deciphering the roots of any tension or conflict with another, continues. What never really evaporates is the imprint deep in the unconscious of the persistent criticism and verbal abuse from the parent who, as we all know intellectually much later, is projecting his or her self-loathing onto the child. And, keeping secrets, especially those sacred to the family, and the abuse that accompanies those secrets, remains as a permanent “skill” or trait long into our dotage. So it was, in my late teens that I took the family half-ton truck out, without permission, and drove it into a rock and flipped it onto its side, as an early expedition into rebellion and raging hormones and social acceptance. Three teen-aged boys visiting camp counsellors at the local YWCA, in secret, was merely the occasion and purpose of the truck. But secrets and secrecy were at the core of the incident, along with the other factors.
And now in a time when privacy is such an important public issue, with the advent of the digital web and the billions of postings on hundreds of websites, people on the other side of the world can and do know what some people ate for breakfast, whether they want to or not. And that capability does not remove or eliminate the reality of personal, private secrets, many of which will never be released to the light of day, perhaps until long after the people involved are no longer living. There is another co-relation too that may be missed in the teachers’ “protection” manual....and that is the oxymoron that most students who are “in trouble” in school are living in conditions that are not conducive to learning the socials skills necessary to navigate the school system. And once labelled, or categorized as “trouble-makers” there is little likelihood that such students will receive the qualitative and compassionate scrutiny that undergirds any and all “protection” manuals.
In order for such a seismic cultural shift to occur, enabling professional teachers to see past the “acting out” into the real problems in the students’ lives, we will need a substantial long-term, sustained and professionally designed curriculum in adolescent psychology that promotes looking beyond the empirical, the behavioural and the attitudinal. Such a curriculum needs to be offered at the Colleges of Education, the training institutes for professional teachers in Ontario. Teachers’ roles will also have to morph from disciplinarians or “cops” into mentors, counsellors and coaches. And that will necessitate a new type of recruitment plan from governments who seem fixated on budget controls, class sizes and breaking up the public education system. Nothing short of a transformation of the public education system will be required. And any and all attempts to educate teachers about their role in reporting child abuse, when they see evidence on its occurrence, worthy though they are, will fall short.
In fact, such tutorials will be little more than band-aids that serve primarily to cover the legal backside of both the professional and the school boards. We can all see, and even experience the shift in attitudes, perceptions values and the treatment of others in our culture. Where it once exhibited deep and heartfelt respect, trust and integrity, there is mounting evidence that such values and approaches are being replaced (if they have not already been replaced) with a large serving of self-interest verging on narcissism, on narrow pecuniary goals, and an accompanying disregard for the people standing in the way of the achievement of those goals. We may be setting our public sights on addressing physical abuse, as a determinant to avoid legal battles, while simultaneously disregarding the conditions necessary to foster such abuse.
Abuse, be it physical (including sexual), emotional, psychological, economic or even religious, is really about the inappropriate exercise of power and the obeying of a subservient “partner”. And the signs of such abuse are not, and will never be, evident to a probing professional who may be considered “invasive” into private affairs, if he or she probes too deeply. In fact, in order for such a culture and relationship to begin to exist, the teaching profession will have to drop its “power-tripping” attitudes and the supervision that enables such power-tripping, given that most senior administrators are, themselves, on a massive power trip of their own, attempting to climb a career ladder, by avoiding many of the very kinds of situations that present as “social” problems. Learning difficulties, however, are very different. They are readily boxed in a category that reads “needs special help” and the student is off-loaded onto the special education department where there really are, and have always been, empathic compassionate and perceptive teachers ready to listen, to develop a trusting relationship with all students, and they are the ones most likely to hear about abuse in the lives of their students.
However, let’s recall the grade twelve student from an East Asian background who came to me after report cards were issued and asked if I would change his mark from a 58% to a 66% because he was afraid to go home with such a poor result. English was not his first language, and while his oral capacity in the language was developing rapidly, his written work needed considerable improvement. Fear of going home, while sad and even tragic, was not indicative of parental abuse, although to me, he was suffering undue emotional stress. I did not alter the grade and did not hear what happened when he took the report card home where family and cultural pride were in charge. Would such a situation be reported as indicative of child abuse today?
 Another grade eleven student approached me after receiving her examination results (77%) to inform me that I had completely destroyed her future as she intended to be a writer. Was she not deserving of a much higher result on the examination? Upon re-reading the paper, (something I always offered to do, with the proviso that the mark could go higher, lower or remain the same and that was the risk they took in asking for a re-read), I concluded that the original grade of 77% was indeed probably more than I would give it on a second reading. Nevertheless, because the student was already distraught, I left the grade as it stood. I have often wondered what kind of future that highly emotionally charged co-ed found, and whether or not her early signs of emotional discomfort continued to plague her in adult life.
Is it child abuse when a peer student calls another vicious names in front of his buddies, and if so, will such incidents have to be reported as child abuse, with the perpetrator subject to legal entanglements? Is it child abuse when a grade eight, sixteen-year-old kicks in the head of a classmate, knocking him unconscious on the playground at lunch time? And will the perpetrator be required to be charged with assault and appear before a justice who can and does impose a sentence? And will the school culture be a subject for legal minds in their pursuit of “justice” for their clients when a case is filed in the judicial system?
I have thought long and hard about whether or not I would be  better off today if the Children’s Aid social workers had been called to investigate child abuse in my home, and my mother (the abuser) had been separated from the family, or I had been sent to live in a foster home.* The workers would not have been given to point to the real problem in our family: my father’s fear of my mother, and his unwillingness to step up to the plate and confront her on behalf of both his son and daughter, both of whom were abused by our mother. Spineless men, frightened men, living with dominating women, while perhaps at the root of some child abuse, is not on the agenda for investigation and reporting to the authorities. Neither is, unfortunately, the spectre of alcoholic men coming home drunk and abusing all other members of the family. Nor is the secret alcoholic mother who hides her alcohol and drinks in secret when the rest of the family is away under the watchful eye of the school authorities when they investigate child abuse, even though her behaviour is more than incidental to the family’s drama, including the required keeping of “her” secret.
And let’s not forget, or ignore the fact that many of the abusers are themselves professionals; in my case, my mother was an exemplary nurse whose patients thought she walked on water; others may be teachers or spouses of teachers themselves. Some may even be administrators in the school system itself, inflicting their illness on their family, with impunity, and which teacher is going to confront such a situation when a superior is involved? And then there are the clergy, some of whom, preach such abusive theology (as did the one in my family’s history) that adolescents who attend school dances, movies, or wear make-up or adults who prepare meals on Sunday or who consume alcohol, or who worship in the Roman Catholic chuch, are “going to Hell”...Is that kind of preaching from a pulpit in a recognized mainstream faith community not a form of child abuse? And who, pray tell, is going to take that abuse on and prosecute that preacher for his “sins” one!
Just as no one is going to expose the imam who preaches radical Islam to his mosque going to face the police or the Crown Attorney with charges of child abuse...
And we could go on....
Reporting child abuse is, on the surface, a seemingly worthwhile social policy goal. It is also fraught with pitfalls whose tales will lead any who venture into them into much deeper trouble than the current trouble faced by former Prime Minsterial aide, Nigel Wright, who did not expect such a public outcry from his writing that $90,000 cheque.

 Beware the good intentions implicit in the Ontario College of Teachers tutorial on reporting child abuse. There are serious sharks in those waters!

*I actually did report through a personal letter to my nurse aunts then working at Sick Children’s Hospital and Mount Sinai hospitals respectively, an incident in which my mother broke a shiny new Spalding Nine Iron I had just received for Christmas, when she learned that I had got a grade of 63% in history that term and I had hidden the report card until after Christmas Day, in order not to soil the holidays and my aunts’ visit to our home. Both aunts reported they were afraid of what my mother might do if they were to go to ‘the authorities”. And when my mother did learn of the letter, she beat me brutally for what she charged me with as “deceit”...her pride was really bruised, I guess.

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