COLUMN

The hysteria over child abuse

Barbara Amiel August 22 1988
COLUMN

The hysteria over child abuse

Barbara Amiel August 22 1988

The hysteria over child abuse

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

The child-abuse bandwagon has been slow in coming to Britain, but when it arrived, it did so with a vengeance. It made its public debut on the evening of Oct. 30, 1986, at 8:30 to be precise. That was the night that the BBC began what it described as “a major campaign against child abuse” and kicked it off with a one-hour-and-45-minute program called Childwatch. The program included a national poll that the BBC had commissioned, showing that one in every 10 British children had suffered some form of cruelty and estimating that three children in the average classroom of 30 were suffering occasional abuse. Sexual abuse of children in England, claimed the pollsters, was now as “common as physical violence.” To those of us who had lived through the two volumes of Robin F. Badgley’s 1984 report, Sexual Offences Against Children, this had a certain nostalgia. Badgley, you may recall, looked into the problem in Canada and found that about one in two females and one in three males had been “victims of unwanted sexual acts” at some time in their lives. All of a sudden, it seemed to me, bookshops and newspapers were featuring celebrities and authors recalling harrowing moments when they had been sexually abused in their childhood. Of course, no sane person can be blind to the fact that some child abuse in our society exists. But the hype and hysteria of the Badgley report was given a pseudoscientific backing with statistics based on definitions of sexual abuse that lumped together a woman’s experiences with an overzealous date at the age of 14—no sexual act took place—with the forced buggery of a seven-year-old boy.

The public and the media in Britain had not been exposed to the general muddle that lies behind those sorts of statistics and were sympathetic toward the notion that a growing problem of child abuse existed in Britain. The media, including television, began a steady stream of follow-up stories. The scene was set for the Cleveland hysteria.

Cleveland is a community in northeast England, which suddenly last year seemed to have an epidemic of child abuse. In all, as many as 197 Cleveland children were taken away from their parents on suspicion of being sexually abused. At the heart of the matter was a pediatrician who had been heavily

influenced by a seminar on child abuse in which she had learned of the technique of reflex anal dilatation (RAD) as a means of diagnosing sexual abuse. Although RAD is a highly controversial tool (some would say a discredited one) for diagnosing abuse, the doctor in question embraced it enthusiastically.

Soon the local hospital wards were packed with babies and small children who had failed the RAD test. Parents who had brought in a child with a minor ailment suddenly found themselves separated from their child and being told to bring in all of their other children for examination as well. Although, subsequently, almost all of the parents were given their children back, the pain—and the smear of the accusations—remained. As one parent, who had taken his case to court and finally got back his four daughters after a sixmonth separation, said: “When I heard the verdict, it was quite a hollow vic-

Part of the problem with the child-abuse movement is its need to establish that child abuse exists among every class

tory. The desperate thing is that you can only say you have done nothing, but you have no proof.”

That sort of hysteria is not confined to Britain. Recently, friends of mine in Canada found themselves being confronted by a social worker after they innocently asked their pediatrician for advice about an incident that their little daughter had reported involving a playmate. The doctor felt that, given the climate of the times, he had no choice but to report the matter. “The social worker just knocked at our door one day and started asking questions,” the mother told me.

There is nothing wrong, and probably a lot of good, in having special police units trained to investigate cases of abuse. What is dangerous is to broaden the definitions of abuse to such vague categories as “emotional” abuse or to start investigating families where the children are evidently happy, healthy and uncomplaining. Sometimes, the abuse of investigation may be worse than any so-called emotional abuse. We need to agree upon a definition of abuse, and that should err on

the side of conservative. If some fathers give their daughters baths at whatever age, it is not a matter for social workers to determine whether that is normal. If there is no distress or complaints, the social workers should stay away.

One of the great unspoken problems that surfaced in a child-abuse seminar I attended in Leeds last month is the problem of sexual abuse of children in lower-class families. Those were families with a high degree of mental retardation and random pregnancies. They were largely confined to subsidized housing, their lives were a shambles and the children grossly abused—sexually and physically. But because no one wants to acknowledge that there are lower-class people, we arrange laws and procedures to encompass them and then apply them to everyone.

Part of the hysteria of the childabuse movement is its need to establish that child abuse exists among every group. I have no doubt that there are cases in middle-class families of dreadful abuse. But it would be confounding the evidence of our eyes and common sense not to see that, unless we define child abuse so broadly as to cover the cessation of ballet lessons, the horror stories of sexual and physical abuse more often take place in families that sleep cramped together in one bedroom. In our egalitarian society, it is taboo to suggest that we may need to focus our attention on those people. As a result, the social worker turned up at the home of my upper-middle-class Canadian friends.

But most social workers know that the real cases of abuse, with the occasional exception, are more likely to occur in a social stratum where the people are simply not competent to lead normal and adequate lives. There ought to be a way of helping those people without their care becoming our social standard. We should also be able to accept the fact, as a lesser evil, that because of the existence of such people, there will always be a number of casualties.

The child-abuse bandwagon has run itself into the ground because it cannot, or does not, wish to make those distinctions. Why it does not wish to do so is the subject for another column. But to use the unfortunate situation of a few to intrude in an extralegal way into the lives of us all is a matter to which we should take the strongest exception.