The recent news stories of the (alleged) systemic child abuse among the polygamist sect in Texas and now of the Austrian man Josef Fritzl, who held his own daughter and three of the seven children he fathered with her locked up for 24 years, leave me mostly speechless.

How can you do this to children? It is unimaginable to me how adults can do this to their own children or witness other children being mistreated to this extend, or any extend, really. I don’t know what else to say myself. So I did a bit of research and found a some very helpful sites.

While it seems just horrific and unnatural, of course, there are some causes for adults abusing children (from the site):

  • Stress, including the stress of caring for children, or the stress of caring for a child with a disability, special needs, or difficult behaviors
  • Lack of nurturing qualities necessary for child care
  • Immaturity: a disproportionate number of parents who abuse their children are teenagers
  • Difficulty controlling anger
  • Personal history of being abused
  • Isolation from the family or community
  • Physical or mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Personal problems such as marital conflict, unemployment, or financial difficulties.

And some cultural beliefs:

  • Children are property.
  • Parents (especially fathers) have the right to control their children in any way they wish.
  • Children need to be toughened up to face the hardships of life.
  • Girls need to be genitally mutilated to assure virginity and later marriage

Both stories are breaking news, yet the reality of the torture of these people went on for years, even decades. These events are very extreme. But there is no point in comparing who suffered more. When powerless people are abused it’s soul-crushing, the world shatters for all of them the same. Some are physically locked up alone and lose all connection to the outside reality, others live among groups who create a reality that forces the victim to believe that this is normal. But many victims of child abuse walk among us and maybe that’s what we can focus on in our outrage:

1. How can we detect that someone is being mistreated? How can we help them?

Some signs of abuse (from the site):

  • Physical:
    • visible marks of maltreatment, such as cuts, bruises, welts, or well-defined burns, and reluctance to go home. If you ask a child about how he or she got hurt and the child talks vaguely or evasively about falling off a fence or spilling a hot dish, think hard before you accept the child’s story at face value.

  • Sexual:
    • Inappropriate interest in or knowledge of sexual acts
    • Seductive behavior
    • Reluctance or refusal to undress in front of others
    • Extra aggression or, at the other end of the spectrum, extra compliance
    • Fear of a particular person or family member

  • Emotional:
    • apathy, depression, and hostility. If it happens at school, the child may be reluctant to go to school and develop or fake a physical complaint.

Eighteen states and Puerto Rico require all citizens to report suspected abuse or neglect.

The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453)

2. How can we support a survivor of abuse in the process of healing?

From a very informative “letter” written from the perspective of a survivor of sexual abuse and addressed to friends, family and partners (from the website):

Your support is extremely important to us. Remember, we have been trained to hold things in. We have been trained NOT to tell about the abuse. We did not tell sooner for a variety of reasons: we live with that fear. […]

We are afraid we might push you away with all our emotional reactions. You can help by: listening, reassuring us that you are not leaving, not pressuring us, touching (WITH PERMISSION) in a nonsexual way.

Of course, an essential focus is on how to prevent the abuse in the first place by intervening if one becomes witness to abuse, by making sure your own children are not in unsafe situations, by supporting the education of parents to make sure they treat their children safely. But what measures can be taken to actually keep potential abusers from committing their crimes (besides parents’ education)? Are there helplines or groups for them? Are there signs to look out for? Then there is the controversial issue of keeping offenders locked up or making their home addresses public.

More information at “Child Abuse and Neglect: Types, Signs, Symptoms, Causes and Getting Help” and through links from that page.

Here’s a page with helpful insights and tips for survivors of abuse: Healing From Child Abuse

A list of support and resource websites I’ve gathered on our website.

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