The Abuse Of Children


NORA UNDERWOOD November 27 1989

The Abuse Of Children


NORA UNDERWOOD November 27 1989

The Abuse Of Children



They seemed to be a typical Toronto couple, struggling to live in an expensive city with two young children. To avoid the high cost of day care, she worked night shifts as a hospital nurse whenever she could, leaving her husband, who worked during the day for an electronics firm, to look after the children. Then, during the summer of 1985, her four-year-old daughter complained of pain and bleeding around her rectum. Despite doctors’ assurances that there was no cause for concern, the woman said that she was disturbed when the problems persisted. Acting on a hunch, she asked her daughter, “Would this go away if Daddy went on a vacation?” The girl replied, “Yes.” It is now years since the vornan, who asked to remain anonymous, discovered that her husband was sexually abusing their daughter, but even now, she says, her feelings of guilt and anger remain. “It shook my concept of the world,” she told Maclean’s. Now 32, divorced and recovering after extensive counselling by Children’s Aid workers, she added, “I thought sexual abuse only happened in really dreadful, disturbed families—until I found it in my own home.”

Victims: To their horror, Canadians are discovering that children of both sexes, of all ages and from all social and economic backgrounds can be the victims of sexual abuse. Increasingly, through the 1980s, doctors, child-care workers and legal personnel have witnessed an explosion in the number of reported cases of all kinds of child abuse— emotional and physical. But it is the rapid increase in reports of sexual assaults involving

children that has aroused the greatest concern. Last year, in Ontario alone, the provincial ministry of community and social services received 933 reports of sexual abuse involving children of 18 and younger, compared with only 286 cases in 1980. In Nova Scotia, the provincial department of community services recorded 116 cases of child sexual abuse in

1987, compared with three in 1980. In Quebec, where no separate figures for sexual abuse were available, the province’s association of social service centres reported 27,940 cases of abuse, including sexual, involving children in

1988, compared with 17,145 in 1981-1982. Because experts say that many cases of

sexual abuse remain hidden, the real numbers are probably much higher. But the estimates are shocking: according to a 1984 report of a royal commission under sociologist Robin Badgley, one in two females and one in three males have been the victims of unwanted sexual acts—and 80 per cent experienced the assaults as children. Statistics show that men— fathers, stepfathers, boyfriends and other males—are the culprits in more than 90 per cent of child sexual-abuse cases, while women are about equally as likely as men to subject children to nonsexual physical abuse.

The sexual molestation of childen occurs in a wide variety of circumstances. Last month in

Calgary, 41-year-old Dennis Anguish, a member of the Big Brothers Organization that looks after fatherless boys, was convicted of sexually assaulting seven boys. Testimony indicated that Anguish performed oral sex on them. In May, 44-year-old Theodore Bugg, a former publicschool teacher, was sentenced to 33 months in prison in Simcoe, Ont., after he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting two 11-year-old boys and a 10-year-old girl. A Nova Scotia man was convicted of sexually abusing his nine-year-old daughter, whose name cannot be revealed. The girl’s doctor said that, after watching a program involving child abuse, the girl told her mother that her father had been forcing her to perform sexual acts on him for five years. He will be sentenced in December.

But experts say that the dramatic rise in reported cases of sexual abuse does not mean that it is increasing. Instead, they say that the statistics simply reflect society’s growing willingness to acknowledge the situation. “I don’t think the problem has grown at all,” said Joseph Rosen, executive director of the B.C. Parents in Crisis Society in Vancouver. “We just do a better job of recognizing it now.”

During the past year, the issue has come sharply into focus as a result of the scandal that has shaken Newfoundland’s Roman Catholic community (page 66). Since September, 1988, when a judge sentenced a St. John’s priest to five years in jail for 20 sexual offences involving altar boys, a total of 19 priests, lay brothers and other members of the Catholic community have been charged or convicted of sex-related offences involving boys in Newfoundland. At least five more members of the church have been charged or convicted of similar crimes in other parts of Canada.

In St. John’s, a royal commission inquiry under former Ontario Supreme Court justice Samuel Hughes has heard accounts of sexual acts involving members of the lay order of Christian Brothers and the boys in their care at Newfoundland’s Mount Cashel orphanage. Some of the most disturbing testimony was that of Shane Earle, a former Mount Cashel resident who said that he was sexually molested by a Christian Brother at the age of 6 when he first arrived at the orphanage. Weeping at times, Earle, now 23, testified that his treatment at Mount Cashel led him to attempt suicide in 1985.

Trauma: Like Earle, many victims of child abuse suffer from long-term psychological problems. Some, including author Elly Danica, who survived nine years of sexual abuse by her father, block the memories of the abuse for years (page 64). Doctors say that other victims of childhood sexual abuse deal with the trauma by escaping into a psychological condition called multiple personality disorder (page 60).

Increasingly, there is evidence to suggest that some young victims of sexual abuse are molested during rituals that have satanic overtones. During the past decade, child-care officials in Canada, the United States and Britain have investigated a growing number of cases in which children have said that they were subjected to sexual abuse during ghoulish rituals (page 62).

Suspicions: Although experts say that adults have used children sexually throughout history, it has only been in the past 10 years that awareness of widespread sexual abuse has grown among North American doctors, childcare workers and parents. According to Bruce Rivers, executive director of the Children’s Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto, increased knowledge of the symptoms of abuse have prompted more people to report their suspicions. “Before, it was considered to be more rare and rather taboo,” said Rivers. “People thought they shouldn’t talk about these things and that children were making things up.” Said Calgary psychologist John Pearce, co-ordinator of clinical services in the Alberta Children’s Hospital child-abuse program: “The Victorians had a myth about the family’s invincibility. But sex abuse happened there, although it was not recognized. Today, people are more aware of abuse, how it shows itself, what to look for.”

Men who sexually molest children generally fall into one of two groups. Dr. John Bradford, a

Sexual abuse, particularly by someone in a position of trust, can have a devastating impact

professor of psychiatry at the University of Ottawa, said that many men who sexually assault their own children often do so as a way of finding sexual release during periods of emotional or financial stress. A second group of offenders is made up of pedophiles, who suffer from a lifelong sexual attraction to children. Bradford said that new research carried out at the Royal Ottawa Hospital has pointed to the possibility that biological abnormalities may be at the root of pédophilie behavior. “Each offender has different needs that are satisfied by molesting children,” said Ronald LaTorre, coordinator for the B.C. Sex Offender Assessment and Treatment Program in Vancouver. “Some will do it for love, some for affection, some for power, control or aggression.” Instincts: With growing awareness of the problem, efforts are being made to protect children by making them aware that some kinds of physical acts by adults should not be permitted. Children in many Canadian primary and elementary schools are shown a 1985 film entitled Feeling Yes, Feeling No. In Toronto, grade-school children see a play entitled Journey from A.M.U. (All Mixed Up). It teaches children to trust their instincts about what feels good and what feels bad. “It teaches children they have their rights too,” said Sgt. Julia Montrose, the Metropolitan Toronto Police Department’s child-abuse co-ordinator. “And a

lot of people have found that as soon as one of those plays is shown, there is an increase in disclosures.”

In fact, doctors say that it is often difficult to detect some kinds of sexual abuse. While the results of severe physical abuse are usually obvious, the effects of emotional and sexual abuse can be far more insidious. Experts assume that detectable emotional damage always occurs if a child is abused.

But they often have to rely on children to disclose sexual abuse. Because of the secretive way adults go about seducing children, many young victims are reluctant to talk about it. “The suspect literally courts the child,” said Montrose.

“The suspect will say things like, ‘This is our little secret.’ The whole area is very, very difficult for police and child workers.”

Neglect: Faced with the growing reality of widespread sexual abuse, police, teachers and social workers are struggling to develop ways of protecting children.

Hospitals and police departments in many Canadian cities now have child-abuse teams that are specially trained to detect and help young victims. Typically,

Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children launched a Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect program in 1973.

Since then, the program’s case load has grown rapidly, according to program director Dr. Marcellina Mian. In 1988, said Mian, the special team of six experts handled 843 suspected cases, compared with 386 in 1981.

Sixty per cent of the cases turned out to involve sexually abused children.

At the same time, Canadian police forces are confronting a growing number of sexual-abuse cases. By September this year, the Calgary Police Department’s child-abuse unit had laid 310 charges of sexual and other child abuse— compared with 137 charges in the first nine months of 1988. Many police officers say that they find dealing with sexual-abuse cases emotionally stressful. Calgary police Det. Harvey Cemaiko said that, in one of his most wrenching cases, a three-month-old baby girl contracted a sexually transmitted anal infection after one of her parents abused her. Said Cemaiko: “You name it, it can happen.”

Part of the responsibility for discovering

evidence of abuse lies with teachers, who are often tipped off by revealing changes in the behavior patterns of children. Many schools have begun to provide brochures and training workshops to make teachers more aware of child abuse. Sexually abused children can sometimes be spotted, said Christina Melnechuk, a child and family counsellor at the Vancouver Incest and Sexual Abuse Centre,

Psychiatrists who work with victims of childhood sexual abuse say that the wounds can be deep and lasting

because they may exhibit inappropriate sexual behavior or knowledge for their ages.

Resentful: As children become more aware of the dangers of sexual abuse, some teachers say that they run the risk of being accused of abuse themselves. Karen Duerden, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said that a child who is resentful because a teacher handed out a low grade or failed to pay enough attention to the child may get even with the teacher

by claiming abuse. “It makes teachers extremely sensitive,” said Duerden. “Many will no longer give the hug a kid needs.”

Still, Toronto’s Rivers said that false allegations of sexual abuse by children are relatively infrequent and, when they do occur, “they are rarely initiated by the child.” Usually, Rivers added, false allegations originate with parents in custody disputes. For her part, Myra Lefkowitz, co-ordinator of Toronto’s child victim witness-support program, said that such allegations often arise out of a misinterpretation of a child’s description of an event. “Child abuse is always foggy,” said Lefkowitz. “You never really get every detail.” Wounds: Psychiatrists and others who work with victims of childhood sexual abuse say that the wounds can be deep and lasting. But they add that boys and girls may react differently. “Boys are not used to being victims,” said David Wellings, regional child-abuse prevention co-ordinator in Alberta’s ministry of family and social services. “They’re more accustomed to being in charge.” Once they have been sexually abused, Wellings added, boys tend to act out their victimization through aggressive behavior towards others—often becoming sexual offenders themselves. Girls, Wellings said, frequently turn on themselves, escaping from their feelings of guilt and remorse through alcohol, drugs and prostitution.

As well, young victims of sexual abuse often experience fear, along with feelings of guilt or shame. Melnechuk recalled how a fiveyear-old child would become quiet and passive when her abusive father entered the room. According to Melnechuk, the little girl believed that the abuse she experienced was her own fault. “The child cannot say, ‘My parents are bad,’ ” said Melnechuk. “And they also think that, because their body feels good when it happens, this is another betrayal.”

Sexual abuse, particularly by someone in a position of trust, can have a devastating impact on a child. Linda LeBrun, 39, a co-ordinator at the B.C. Child Abuse Research and Education Production Association, recalled that when she was 9, a relative took her for walks at a cottage

near Cornwall, Ont., and sexually abused her. She added, “If I resisted, he would say, ‘I’ll tell your parents, and you’ll get in trouble.’ ” After the abuse stopped, Lebrun said that she confessed what had happened to a priest, who only scolded her. As a result, LeBrun became withdrawn and untrusting. “It never dawned on me to be angry,” she said. “You think you are a bad person. At that point, I just kept it secret.” Canadian hospitals and social agencies have begun to set up programs to treat young victims of sexual abuse, often using play and art therapy to help victims who cannot easily express their feelings in words. As well, group therapy is used to help victims share their pain and guilt with others. Gemma Matthey, a social worker at Montreal’s Ville Marie Social Services organization, said that when children “really trust everybody in the group, they’re capable of expressing their feelings, like what it was like when it happened or why they did not tell someone right away.”

Liars: Meanwhile, changes in the law and courtroom procedures have helped to reduce some of the terror of courtroom appearances for children who testify in abuse cases. In the past, judges have sometimes dismissed cases against suspected child molesters because children were afraid to testify. According to Toronto’s Lefkowitz, many children worry that the accused—who may be a relative—will call them liars. Under a Criminal Code amendment that came into effect last year, videotaped statements by children can now be accepted in some cases as evidence. And court officials may, under certain circumstances, install screens to shield children from potentially intimidating glances of the accused.

Treating offenders in the hope that they will not molest children again has met with mixed success. According to Bradford, men who have had sexual relations with their own children are relatively easy to treat and infrequently re-

offend. During therapy, offenders learn how to alter their thinking patterns and to develop greater self-control. Experts say that marital difficulties, as well as drug or alcohol problems, often play a part in driving such offenders to

Victims often experience fear and feelings of guilt and shame

seek sexual gratification with children.

But Bradford added that treating pedophiles is more complicated. As well, pedophiles are more likely to repeat their offence—even after being treated. As a result, doctors may admin-

ister hormonal agents or drugs from a family of chemicals known as anti-androgens, which decrease production of the male hormone testosterone. Those drugs, which Bradford likens to a “chemical castration,” help to reduce the pedophile’s sex drive and suppress deviant sexual fantasies. Added Bradford: “It gives them control.”

Attitudes: Experts in the field say that many offences against children, including physical and sexual abuse, are rooted in certain adult attitudes towards children. “Society still regards children as property,” said Pearce. “It regards spanking as okay. And from there, some people get the idea that it is all right to do anything to kids.” At the same time, Rivers said that the increased reporting of child sexual abuse reflected a change in fundamental attitudes towards children. As adults become more aware of the sexual abuse of children, said Rivers, children also are learning that they have rights. But no matter how sophisticated they may become, children cannot be relied upon to protect themselves—and need to be able to trust adults to do that for them.

Meanwhile, the 32-year-old Toronto woman reports that her daughter is regaining her feelings of trust in adults. The girl, who is now 9, still sleeps with her head under the covers at night. But it has been a year since she saw her father—who, until then, had limited supervised-visitation rights—and her confidence has started to return. “It’s now sort of an incident in the past to us,” said her mother. “I think she understands that what happened to her was something unique to her father.” But childcare workers agree that people must learn that the only real protection for children is prevention—because even a single act of sexual violence can leave scars that last a lifetime.

NORA UNDERWOOD with correspondents’ reports