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A Brighter Day: How Parents Can Help African American Youth
By Gail L. Thompson
African American ImagesCopyright © 2009 Dr. Gail Thompson
All rights reserved.
I Brought You into This World but You Might Take Me Out: What We Need to Know About Discipline
When I was a little girl, a friend of mine told me that her mother often said to her, "I brought you into this world, and I will take you out!" Whenever she appeared to be getting out of line, her mother said this to remind her who was boss. As we were growing up, many of us heard the same thing or something similar. In most cases, our parents or guardians meant no harm. What they wanted was for us to remember that we needed to treat our parents respectfully and to remember how to behave properly. Today, however, some parents who use this threat may be harming their children even though they may have good intentions. Others may not even pretend to have good intentions; they just engage in one harmful practice after another. One result is child abuse, which is common not only in the U.S. but throughout the world. As I mentioned in the Introduction, Black children are more likely to die during childhood and to be subjected to violence than any other group of children.
One of the main reasons why child abuse is common is that most of us — including White, Latino, and Asian American parents — have never taken a parenting class. A female can have a baby, but that doesn't mean that she has a clue about how to take care of that baby. When a baby is born, we parents have the option of raising our children in the same manner in which our parents reared us or trying a totally different approach. Children are often abused by parents who follow a cycle of generational abuse. These parents do what was done to them. If their mother or father beat them with an extension cord and they "turned out okay," they may adopt the same practice with their own children. If their mother or father called them the N word, they may call their children the same. Many adults don't understand the difference between abuse and discipline, so in the following sections I will explain the typical categories of abuse, the characteristics of perpetrators, the long-term consequences of child abuse, and what experts say about spanking and other forms of discipline. I will also describe several famous African Americans who overcame child abuse as well as prevention and intervention strategies. I conclude with the law of "sowing and reaping," a warning to parents about how child abuse can come back to haunt them.
Categories of Child Abuse
Contrary to popular opinion, child abuse doesn't just involve physically harming or sexually abusing a child. Any type of mistreatment can be considered child abuse. Child abuse categories typically include neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and psychological maltreatment."
Neglect. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), neglect is the most common type of child abuse. There are three types of neglect: emotional neglect, physical neglect, and educational neglect. Emotional neglect occurs when parents fail to make children "feel special, loved" and the family fails to be "a source of strength, support, and protection." Children who are emotionally neglected may not gain weight, crave affection, and steal food. Parents who subject children to emotional neglect may appear to be indifferent to the child, and they may seem to be depressed and/or they may behave in a bizarre manner. Parents who abuse drugs or alcohol may also be guilty of emotionally neglecting their children.
Physical neglect occurs when parents don't provide children with enough food, water, and clean and decent clothing, and they don't take care of children's medical needs. Physically neglected children may miss school frequently, beg or steal money, have a bad body odor, appear to be unclean, and need glasses and dental work.
Parents who commit educational neglect fail to ensure that their children come to school on time and attend school regularly. They may appear to be unconcerned about whether or not their children complete their schoolwork. Later in this book, I'll describe specific ways in which African American parents can assist their children academically.
Emotional Abuse. Cursing at and insulting children are two common ways that parents can inflict emotional abuse on a child. But it's more than this. According to the CDC, "Emotional abuse is any pattern of behavior that harms a child's emotional development or sense of self-worth. It includes frequent belittling, rejection threats, and the withholding of love and support." Emotionally abused children may develop speech disorders, nervous disorders, and eating disorders. They may also become bedwetters, appear to enjoy hurting other children, be developmentally delayed, and behave in extreme ways.
Physical Abuse. Physical abuse, the second most common type of abuse, results in "physical injury due to punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, shaking, or otherwise harming a child. Even if the parent or caretaker did not intend to harm the child, such acts are considered abuse when done purposefully." Physically abused children may have bruises on their bodies, and they may appear to be depressed, aggressive, or withdrawn. They may appear to be fearful of their parent(s) or caretaker(s). They may display anti-social behavior and become substance abusers.
Sexual Abuse. Sexual abuse, which can be perpetrated by adults or other children, consists of touching or fondling a child "in a sexual way," forcing a child to touch the perpetrator's "body in a sexual way, and/or attempted [or actual] oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse" with a child. Children who have been sexually abused may complain of having pain in the genitals, have frequent urinary tract or yeast infections, frequent sore throats, and genital or anal bleeding and discharges. They may become pregnant and/or contract sexually transmitted diseases. These children may have trouble sleeping, walking, or sitting, may avoid undressing in front of others, may wear extra layers of clothing, may act out sexually, or may develop problems at school.
Perpetrators: Characteristics of Child Abusers
It seems to me that not a day passes without newspaper, television, and radio news reports carrying stories about horrible things that adults do to children. In recent years, we've been bombarded with stories about priests who sexually abuse children. In fact, as I was working on this chapter, Deliver Us From Evil was released. This documentary featured Oliver O'Grady, a former priest, who has admitted to sexually abusing "at least 25 children." During the same month, a church pastor was arrested for molesting a little girl for seven years while she attended a Baptist School in Thousand Oaks, California.
Of course, priests and pastors aren't the only child sexual predators. Just 10 days after the arrest of the former Thousand Oaks pastor, a San Diego male nurse received a 14-year prison sentence for "molesting a comatose toddler, who suffers from a rare condition and is unable to communicate." Several months earlier, another male nurse at the same children's hospital was arrested for allegedly molesting "five young patients, all of whom were unable to communicate because of brain damage or other severe conditions."
Although child abusers can work in any profession and come from any racial or ethnic background, any income bracket, and be either male or female, the ones that tend to shock us the most are parents who abuse. Foster parents are supposed to be care takers who have opened their homes and taken related classes in order to help children who have been abused or neglected. Yet numerous foster parents have been arrested for abusing the very children they were being paid to help. In 2003, Americans were shocked to learn that Raymond and Vanessa Jackson, a highly respected, church-attending African American couple in New Jersey with several adopted children, had been arrested for aggravated assault and starving four of their children. The oldest boy, a teenager, only weighed 45 pounds when his parents were arrested. Neighbors had caught him "rummaging through their trash." In 2004, another foster parent, David Schaper, a church youth pastor, was arrested in Oregon and charged with raping three girls ranging from two to nine years old. Schaper's wife ran a daycare center out of their home, and she allowed him to take care of the children when she was away from home. In 2006, Melanie Ochs, a Las Vegas foster mother, was arrested for child abuse after she murdered a seven-month-old baby. The child "died from blunt force trauma to the head." He had been living with Ochs since he was three days old.
Even though we hear horrible stories about abusive foster parents and adoptive parents, in reality, foster parents, legal guardians, and unmarried partners of parents are a lot less likely to abuse children than are biological parents and stepparents. In fact, "nonparent perpetrators" account for only about 10 percent of the total percentage of child abusers. On the other hand, "nearly 84 percent of victims [are] abused by a parent acting alone or with another person," and mothers are more likely than all other groups to be guilty of inflicting abuse on a child.
The media report so many cases of parents abusing children that the public may have become immune. But in my case, this hasn't happened, and I continue to be shocked each time a new case surfaces. In 2005, for instance, I was horrified when a couple in Utah was arrested for torturing, starving, and pulling out the toenails of several of their children.
During that same year, the Precious Doe case, a mystery that had received widespread media coverage, was solved. In 2001, the headless body of this three-year-old Black child was found in Kansas City, Missouri, yet no one came forward to claim the body. Because her identity was unknown, she was nicknamed "Precious Doe." This case confused authorities for years. However, one man, Alonzo Washington, a community activist and child advocate, wouldn't let the public or authorities forget about this child. In 2005, thanks to the persistence of Washington who didn't "want people 'to forget there was a child discarded like trash,'" there was a break in the case. In the end, the mother and stepfather of the child (whose real name was Erica Michelle Maria Green) were arrested. The stepfather had kicked the child in the head, and he and her mother had allowed her to suffer without medical attention for about two days before she finally died.
Researchers have drawn some interesting conclusions about child abusers and the types of parents and caregivers who are most likely to abuse. One of the most surprising findings is that "Over 90% of abusive parents do not have a psychotic or criminal personality." Researchers have identified the following list of parents as being high risk for child abuse:
1. Single parents who have few, if any, friends to help them with child care, who are lonely, who had an unplanned pregnancy, who don't know much about child development or appropriate child behavior, and who are substance abusers are considered to be high-risk parents.
2. Parents who live in poverty, in communities where there is lots of violence, who experience lots of stressful events, and who were teenage parents are high risk.
3. Parents who have experienced spousal abuse, have a limited education, and have a mental disability are high risk.
4. Parents who have so-called "high-risk children," infants who were born prematurely, are mentally retarded, have ongoing medical problems, or are colicky babies are high risk.
One of the most well-known characteristics of parents who are most likely to abuse is that many of them come from abusive childhoods. It's hard to pinpoint the actual numbers because they vary depending on who is reporting them. For example, according to one report, "10-40% of abusive parents have experienced physical abuse as children." A report from the American Academy of Family Physicians states, "Parents who were abused as children are more likely than other parents to abuse their own children. According to a third report, not only were most abusive parents abused or neglected during childhood, but "many abusers view themselves as victims in life generally or in the parent-child relationship in particular. They feel they have lost control of their children and their own lives." In other words, child abuse can become a generational cycle. It can also lead to many other problems, including the ones I mentioned above under each subcategory of child abuse.
One of the saddest aspects of child abuse is that it has been linked to many long-term consequences. CDC researchers who conducted the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study found that children who had been abused, neglected, or exposed to "other traumatic stressors" were more likely than others to experience the following problems and indulge in the following behaviors as adults:
· have unplanned pregnancies
· attempt suicide
· contract sexually transmitted diseases
· have multiple sexual partners
· develop heart disease, liver disease, and/or pulmonary disease
· use illegal drugs and/or abuse alcohol
· have a child die
· experience depression
· become involved in an abusive relationship with a partner.
Child abuse can also affect people who are not directly or indirectly connected to the original abuser. The interviews that Helen Morrison, a forensic psychiatrist, has conducted with serial killers illustrate this point. Even though Morrison believes that serial killers become this way as a result of a genetic problem, not child abuse, many of her interview subjects were abused as children. One of these serial murderers, Richard Macek, admitted that his father was physically abusive." When he committed suicide in prison, Macek was serving a life sentence for murder. John Wayne Gacy, one of the most notorious serial killers that Morrison interviewed, had a father who not only hated his son but verbally and physically abused his wife and children as well. Gacy, who liked to dress up as a clown, eventually was convicted of killing 33 people and executed by lethal injection. Bobby Joe Long, who was sentenced to death for killing numerous women, grew up hating both of his parents, especially his mother, a single parent.
Like Morrison, Anna Salter, a psychologist, has interviewed individuals who have done horrible things to others. Salter has interviewed rapists, sadists, psychopaths, and other types of sexual predators, including those who prey exclusively on children. Salter doesn't necessarily believe that most sexual predators who prey on children were abused themselves, but she has found that often children who are sexually abused had previously been neglected by their parents, had a single mother, and/or didn't have a close relationship with their fathers. This made them easy targets for child sexual predators.
Some of the most interesting, but also chilling, work that shows the long-term effects of child abuse deals with sociopathy. Sociopaths have been described as people who don't have a conscience and are unable to empathize with others. Martha Stout, a clinical psychologist who worked at the Harvard Medical School for 25 years, refers to sociopaths as "ice people," "cold blooded" individuals who use charm, manipulation, and deception to take advantage of others. Even though they account for less than five percent of the total U.S. population, they cause a great deal of harm to society. The three main theories about sociopathy are that genetics, environment, and the way that sociopaths process emotional stimuli may all be contributing factors. Culture and the way children are reared may also play a role in determining which individuals become sociopaths. Ken Magid and Carole A. McKelvey, the authors of High Risk: Children Without a Conscience, believe that abuse and a child's failure to bond or attach to the primary caregiver during the first year of life can cause children to grow up to become sociopaths.
Although some researchers believe that it's impossible to determine if a person is a sociopath before age 18, others have found that some common signs of sociopathy often surface during childhood. These signs include being cruel to other children and animals, being fascinated with blood and gore, self-destructiveness, hoarding and stealing food and other items, excessive lying, phoniness, poor eye contact, and speech and learning problems.
A famous case of a child who displayed sociopathic tendencies at an early age is that of Mary Bell. Mary, who lived in England, came from an extremely abusive background. Not only was her mother a prostitute, but she reportedly made Mary have sex with men and gave her drugs. When she was only 11 years old, Mary was convicted of murdering two little boys. Her coldness, ruthlessness, lack of emotion, and other behaviors convinced some experts that she was indeed a sociopath.
Excerpted from A Brighter Day: How Parents Can Help African American Youth by Gail L. Thompson. Copyright © 2009 Dr. Gail Thompson. Excerpted by permission of African American Images.
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