Behavior

Evicting violence from the family circle

Barbara Matthews November 24 1980
Behavior

Evicting violence from the family circle

Barbara Matthews November 24 1980

Evicting violence from the family circle

Behavior

Barbara Matthews

Although publicity over wife-beating and child abuse has shown the family to be the single most violent collective, most Canadians still believe that the family is society’s most loving and supportive institution. That’s why so many viewers were shocked earlier this year to see what is perhaps the most pathetic form of family violence—called “granny bashing” in news reports—dramatized in a Quincy episode titled “Honor Thy Elders.” The segment told the story of an 80-year-old man who killed himself rather than face another brutal beating from the middle-aged, middle-class son with whom he lived. The authenticity of the plot made it all the more horrifying—it was researched for nearly five months by the star’s brother, Peter Klugman, who is now convinced that cruelty to the elderly is as prevalent as any other form of family violence. “Legislators are reluctant to admit elderly abuse exists because there are no laws to stop it,” Klugman says. “Admitting it would be self-indicting.”

Last month the Standing Senate Committee on Health, Welfare and Science did far more than admit that abuse of the aged exists. In a 90-page report to the federal government, it articulated what family care workers have been struggling to make clear for years: if society wants to protect its old people, it must first protect its children, because violence is not caused by alcohol or poverty or stress. Violence is a learned behavioral response insidiously passed from one generation to the next. In order to be stopped, it must never be allowed to start. The report, Child at Risk, likens the first years of life to the pouring of cement. “If you do not mix the batch right, you are stuck with it and you have to go at it with a sledgehammer later, and it is a slow, difficult and almost impossible process.” It is also, more often than not, a thankless task.

Because a large segment of society respects the traditional sanctity of the family, interference in its internal workings is regarded as a gross invasion of privacy. British Columbia’s child abuse hotline, set up a year ago by the province’s ministry of human resources in an effort to encourage more members of the public to report suspected cases of child abuse, receives an average of 500 legitimate calls from all over the province every month, yet the program (soon to be duplicated in Alberta) has been criticized as an Orwellian “Big Brother is watching” method of state interference. Dr. Robert Bates, 36, head of the child abuse unit at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, thinks it is time for society to take responsibility, whether it is welcomed or not. “Children should be looked on as a resource of the community, not as property owned by the family.”

The idea that one family member— usually the weakest—belongs to another seems as common today as it was hundreds of years ago. Linda MacLeod, a senior researcher with the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, points out in a recent report, Wife Battering in Canada: The Vicious Circle, that most women have always been expected to obey their husbands. Since that relationship is still largely condoned, husbands often slap, punch or constantly berate their wives without realizing that what they are doing is wrong. The council estimates that at least one in 10 women will be battered by a mate this year. The aftermath is seen daily at a huge home in Toronto’s old Annex neighborhood. Originally built for a large turn-of-thecentury family, the Interval House battered wife shelter is now filled with family fragments. Says Judy Gorton, a 31-year-old staff member: “Husbands must recognize the fact that they have no right to lay even a finger on their wives and no excuse—even being drunk—to do so.” Gorton’s solution to the wife-beating problem is simple, but she believes in it absolutely: children should never be struck. “Hitting a child teaches her or him that, if you love someone, it’s okay to hit them.”

Hand in hand with physical abuse and just as dangerous, says the Senate committee’s Child at Risk report, is psychological violence: emotional deprivation, rejection and neglect. Calculated to reduce self-esteem, the results of psychological trauma have been well documented. Unloved children become unloving adults who do unto others. . . . The others are often their own parents in later years when the roles and the dependency have been switched. Contrary to popular belief, well over half the nation’s elderly live in family settings, often with their adult children who feel pressured by society to keep them. Sometimes barely tolerated for their pension cheques, shut away in upstairs rooms, made to eat alone in the kitchen because they are messy, many old people live out their last years in misery. Yhetta Gold of Winnipeg’s Age and Opportunity Centre, a private agency that has been providing services to the well elderly for 22 years and is now participating in a group studying abuse of the aged, says: “People who always tried to work out their problems have a better chance of coping. Violence toward the aged parent is a result of animosity that has accumulated over the years.” Diane DePass of Edmonton, a 27-year-old working mother whose elderly father moved in when she and her husband were first married five years ago, is happy with the arrangement and perplexed at reports of maltreatment. “I can’t believe a loved and well-treated child would turn around and abuse his parents. The bottom line is love and respect.”

When there is no love and respect, when there is nothing but fear and hopelessness, many battered family members think about getting out and find the alternatives even more discouraging. Old people face financial insecurity, decreasing mobility,loneliness and institutionalization. Women with little money encounter welfare laws that require them to leave the matrimonial home and file for a separation or divorce before they are eligible. And as for children—unless their situation is brought to the attention of a social agency which will then have to battle in court to get them out of the home, their abuse will only end with adulthood.

The preventive solution advocated by Bates of the Hospital for Sick Children stresses the need for legislation that would allow the monitoring by social agencies of expectant parents. Whenever destructive attitudes emerged, counselling could begin before birth. In a list of recommendations presented to the federal government last spring, the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women said, “The community has an obligation to do everything possible to protect any and all of its members from violence regardless of age, sex, marital status, or where the violence takes place; and to encourage long-range prevention through educational programs [and] information campaigns.” The preventive theme was repeated yet again in last month’s Senate committee report, which further advocated the promotion of parenting courses by all levels of government. Until the rest of society realizes that the only way to reduce family violence permanently is to break the generational cycle, interference by what has been called a “tidal wave of professionalism” will continue to be viewed as an unwarranted invasion of the sanctity of the family. And the old song You Always Hurt the One You Love will remain a painful and unnecessary truism.

With files from Catherine Rodd